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broken white boys and other things to fix on weekends

Chapter Text

Nakia gently placed a hand on T'Challa's shoulder. The king sighed, his eyes clouded with grief. "I held our father in my arms, Shuri. But I was too late. I had taken the heart-shaped herb, but I was powerless to help him. I felt..." his brown eyes met those of his little sister, and she felt a chill. "I felt angry. Never before had I known such anger."

Shuri shifted in her seat, her hands clenched tightly into fists. T'Challa would never say it, or even think it, but she, too felt as if she had failed her father. She should have been able to keep him safe. Keep the Wakandan aid relief workers safe. She caught Nakia's eye, but the beautiful spy dropped her gaze. She had been the one who had counseled King T'Chaka to send the workers to begin with, fighting against their history of exclusion and solitude. They had met with death at every turn. Shuri knew that Nakia had seen much of strife and death as a spy for Wakanda. She was only beginning to realize how privileged and protected she had been.

"My brother," Shuri said softly, tears brimming in her eyes before she blinked them away. "Surely anyone would have felt anger."

"It is true. But as our mother has taught us, it is not the anger that is evil but how we chose to act. I did not act with honor."

Nakia moved slightly. "The Sokovia Accords that your father helped to draft... they are the right thing, T'Challa. I have read them."

"You are right, Nakia. But that is not what I speak of. The Accords are good. Not only do they keep those with powers in check, they also give the world a way to call for help from those who are strong enough to give it. As Black Panther, I have signed them. They are what creates a world that Wakanda can be a part of. Imagine if someone with the abilities of Spider-man or Iron Man with the intent and knowledge of Klaue or Killmonger were to try and take over other countries! The Accords gives us the legal means to stop them."

"The Accords would not have helped us with Killmonger," Shuri said, confused. "The UN barely even knows Wakanda exists."

"But the weapons that he tried to send to the Americans, England, and China. We would have had the authority and backing of the UN to help stop him had Everette Ross not stopped them himself. It was another reason that King T'Chaka was in favor of the Accords, because he felt only those opposed to the rule of law would be against them. Men and women like Killmonger," Nakia explained.

T'Challa gave a small smile. "I do not think our guests would be pleased with the company you are putting them with, Nakia."

"Are they still our guests? I thought they were leaving?"

"Yes, they are. Mr. Rogers and Mr. Wilson are welcome here as they please, but they say they are meeting the Black Widow to follow up on a lead of hers... they believe a terrorist has access to alien technology and weapons."

"Go with them, brother!" Shuri interrupted, excitement making her brown eyes sparkle. "Bring me some alien weapons! I would like to see how it works!"

T'Challa rolled his eyes, looking fondly at his little sister. "Perhaps Everett Ross will do a favor for his favorite Wakandan," he said with a smirk, making Shuri smile in return. Ross did have a particular soft spot for the brilliant teenager, one which she reciprocated. He had risked his life to help her and Nakia, had taken a bullet for Nakia before that-- Shuri did not forget it.

"Then... you have forgiven the woman spy? This... Black Widow?" Nakia asked, bringing T'Challa's attention back to the subject.

"Of course I have."

"I do not understand you, T'Challa! You signed the Accords, and yet you harbor and forgive the fugitives!"

"They are good people. And they must choose their own way. Agent Barton and Mr. Lang are home with their families, and Wanda Maximoff has gone into hiding, choosing not to stay with them. I will not put myself over them, Shuri. I believe in the Accords but I believe that all must find their path. I signed the Accords and believe in them, but I am not responsible for enforcing it. Stark and I agreed that the new amendments must have a clause to that effect. I am not their king," he added.

Shuri smiled doubtfully. "I don't know that your allies will agree with you that you bear no responsibility, brother."

"My allies agree with me; we care for justice to be done, not settling rivalries."

"You are speaking of the Iron Man," Nakia said. She was putting together the pieces of his story, having been undercover and out of touch for the weeks during the events."You said you followed him to find Barnes. Instead, you found Zemo, your true enemy, and turned him over to Ross. What did the Iron Man say of this?"

T'Challa was silent a few moments, standing up and looking out the window. His sister and Nakia knew him so well, they could see the regret in his eyes. "When I saw Mr. Rogers and Mr. Barnes leaving the bunker, it was clear that they had been in a terrible fight. They were in no position to fight me, but even without his shield, Mr. Rogers put himself between me and his friend."

"Where was his shield? It belongs to Wakanda does it not?"

"He dropped it. He is no longer Captain America. And in this case... I believe the shield is in the hands of the right person." Nakia raised an eyebrow in question. "Tony Stark," he clarified for her.

"We all know that his father was the one that made the shield. Where did he get the vibranium for it? Was it taken?"

"No! My grandfather sent it to him anonymously during World War II. He wanted to help the allies fight the Nazis but of course could not reveal Wakanda's secrets. He sent it to the inventor who was looking to create a way to fight them. I do not believe Stark fully understood what it was that was given to him. It was very inventive to use it to create a shield, you must admit." Shuri stifled a laugh.

"And now that shield is in the hands of Tony Stark?"

"For the best. I know that whatever he chooses to do with it, it will help the most people."

"You respect him."

"Of course!"

"What happened in Siberia, brother?" Shuri urged. "After you saw Barnes and Rogers?"

"I told them I would not fight them anymore. They could see that I had caught Zemo, and Mr. Rogers was very thankful." T'Challa sighed, looking tired. "He asked me to help Iron Man, as his suit was no longer functioning and he had no way to fly out."

"Did you ever find out why they fought so terribly when he had gone to help them?" Shuri asked.

"Tony Stark did not tell me, and I did not ask. It seemed there was something of a... very personal nature."

"I still cannot believe you gave outsiders the coordinates to Wakanda," Nakia said, shaking her head. She had never met the visitors herself, but had heard about them from Shuri.

"I had brought so much danger upon them, it was the right thing to do. My father King T'Chaka knew as well; our days of isolation must end. I thought when I fought Killmonger I was beginning a new era, but I see now with the Accords and the relief workers my father had sent, he was trying to help others. I am continuing his legacy, not destroying it." Nakia nodded her head in approval.

"So you gave them safe passage, and took Zemo and Tony Stark back to the American, Ross?"

T'Challa nodded. "I found him gravely injured, his Iron Man armor badly damaged. Because Zemo was a danger to himself and others, I gave him a sedative. I brought them both back to base."

"Is that all?" Shuri asked slyly. Nakia turned to T'Challa, confused.

"I did tell Mr. Rogers the location of the Raft, and possible ways around its security features," T'Challa acknowledged. "But that was not my own doing, I was merely the messenger."

"You a messenger! For who?"

"Iron Man. He told me his once teammates were being held there against what was agreed upon in the Accords. The US government did not like the ex-Avengers going rogue, but apparently did not have a problem doing it themselves. Mr. Stark was concerned for the safety and well-being of the prisoners but for many reasons could not intervene himself. So he gave me the information to pass along."

"Were they not in prison for fighting the Iron Man to begin with?" Nakia asked. "He brutally fought with their leader? And then he gave them all means for escape?"

"It is complicated," T'Challa said with a grin. "But sometimes our ideals fall short of our abilities. We end up fighting with those we called friend and counselor." He grew silent a long moment, thinking of W'Kabi and all the others who had fought beside Killmonger. "I know that each who fought felt they had no choice."

"It is well that you are back home. The politics surrounding all of this is unpleasant, to say the least."

"The world owes the Avengers. Think of what might have happened if they had not stopped the aliens in New York! By the time Wakanda could intervene, it would have been too late, and I do not think Black Panther alone could do what they had done. But it is true that I am glad to turn my attention home." He paused, an odd look crossing his face.

"What is it?" Shuri asked.

"Something that Tony Stark told me. On our trip back to Avenger's Compound after we turned over Zemo to Everett Ross." He frowned. "He asked if Wakanda had ever been to outer space. I think he could see, even then, that there was more to Wakanda than meets the eye. He probably knows more about vibranium than anyone outside of Wakanda. I told him no, and he said that we should be very careful, that the world was not as safe as we all hoped it would be, and that a great threat was imminent."

"What kind of threat?"

"I will have to ask him about it. At the time, he was only half conscious due to his injuries and lack of sleep. I had things at home to attend to," his hand reached up and touched the Black Panther necklace that would turn into the suit. "But I will need to ask him at some point. It makes me wonder what he saw when he flew into that portal to get rid of the nuclear weapon."

"I was only a small child then, I didn't remember that. He flew his suit into space?" Shuri asked, her interest piqued.

"Yes. From what I understand, he nearly died of it." He glanced at the time. "We should get going," he said to Nakia. "My mother will be waiting for us."

They both said goodbye to Shuri and left her alone in her lab. Shuri thought about what he'd said about Tony Stark. She had read some of his scientific publishings, but like all countries without vibranium, they were of little help or interest to her own understandings. Much of his energy findings were helpful, however, even back then, and she wondered if he had written anything lately.

She pulled up a full-size image of the Avengers leader, the same one that had shown Everette Ross an image of Killmonger only a few weeks ago. To her young eyes, the man looked old. Not just in relative age, but there was a tiredness about him, as if he had born a great burden for a long time. She knew a little about his history, of course, but not in great detail, and she began to read about him, wondering what would drive such a man to become an enemy to his friends.

Chapter Text

She was not often alone.

In fact, unless she was mistaken, she was not quite alone even now, seemly surrounded only by the vast solitude of the sun-soaked desert. Marija, most likely, or Ayo. She wasn't sure, and she didn't want to know which of the Dora Milaje were following her. She knew as princess she must be safe and careful, but she craved, she wanted, she hoped for just a moment alone.

The revelation that King T'Chaka had killed his brother all those years ago sat in her chest like a stone. The weight of it-- not crippling, but painful. She had been raised to believe that the bonds of family were immutable. Baba had taught her that himself, knowing that his brother had died by his hand; the thought of it made her ill. You are a good man with a good heart, he had told T'Challa. It is hard for a good man to be king.

And already, blood stained the hands of her idol, her brother. Already, her cousin who she had only met long enough for him to nearly kill her, lay dead, his blood on their soil. T'Challa had respected his dying injunction to bury his body at sea; that was the kind of man, the kind of king her brother was. She shivered in the dying heat as the sun set in a blaze of orange and yellow and bright.

She had not taken the heart-shaped herb. Her place was in her bright and beautiful lab, not buried in the red sand in the underground caves, not in the darkness where the herb thrived and glowed. She, at times, felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders; her father and mother, and now T'Challa, had shown her great trust by giving her the lab and access to all the secrets of vibranium. She knew that most Wakandans did not know even a portion of its secrets the way she did, but she had dedicated her life to it. Her first toy had been a vibranium rattle; worth more than most American cars, and she'd thrown it to learn about gravity as a toddler. It was a kind of privilege that demanded responsibility, although the truth was, she sometimes forgot to take it as seriously as she should. As M'Baku had been happy to remind her and every one of it, had they forgotten. The criticism leveled at her brother's competency as king because of her made her stomach clench.

For all that, she understood that she could not and did not know the kind of weight her brother bore. As Black Panther. As the King.

She sat on a rock to watch as the sky threw brilliant colors as the light slowly faded from them. The rock bled its warmth into her, comforting, solid. She wished for a moment she could see her father like T'Challa had. Speak to him. Receive one more warm embrace, one more encouraging word. He had always been so proud of her, so supportive.

She wanted to tell him she understood the choice he had made. She wanted to tell him she forgave him. The problem wasn't what he'd done, the problem was he'd kept it a secret.

There were, perhaps, far too many secrets in Wakanda.

A flock of crows rose up before her, casting their dark silhouette against the fading orange light. She had always been fascinated with the birds; she'd had one as a pet once, when it had been injured in the wing. It was incredibly smart, it had even learned to speak. She had let it go after she'd healed it, and for years it had visited her. She supposed it died at some point, because it had been months since she'd seen it, but the other crows from the same flock would still bring her bright trinkets and eat from her garden. Shuri leaned forward. Baba had helped her build the garden for the crows, although he was a busy man and she could build it herself. He had helped her. Seeing then soaring now, she thought it felt like he was still with her.

Her thoughts wandered to Tony Stark. She'd been obsessively reading about the American billionaire; his life was better than a mexican soap opera. But at the moment, she wasn't feeling as entertained by his life story as she had earlier. She was thinking about what it might have been like for him to lose his parents when he was very young. In fact, she had realized that Tony Stark and Erik Stevens had become orphans and nearly the same time, only a few months apart-- in December for Tony and February of the next year for Erik.

Who could say how much more drastically the two men could contrast paths? Each man, heir apparent to a changing kingdom, a possible instrument for change and progress or utter domination and destruction. Both seemingly betrayed by those who were meant to protect them. Both had served their nation's military, both became the expert and example of excellence in their area. Both, perhaps, had blood on their hands.

One had been horrified at the discovery. One had felt a grim triumph, relished it, embraced it. Two men on a collision course with their own destiny; she had read the redacted SHEILD files. The encryption was not a difficult one. She'd read what Tony Stark had told the SHIELD psychiatrist, something he'd told his personal assistant-- I shouldn't be alive, unless it was for a reason.

Erik Stevens had felt that same way, hadn't he? Yet the two men could not have chosen their path forward to be more different if they tried. Tony Stark disavowed weapons and became Iron Man, bent on helping humanity and saving the world, keeping his weapons out of the hands of those who would use them to harm. Erik became Killmonger and used death and violence to further his position until he was positioned to dominate humanity and rule the world with a vibranium fist, flooding the earth with the most dangerous and violent weapons on the planet with little regard with who they were used against.

Shuri let her thoughts drift away, quieting her mind. As the light faded into dusk and then darkness began, she stood and began to make her way home. After a few minutes, Ayo fell into step with her, seeming to appear out of nowhere. Ayo shifted her spear to her left hand and walked closer to Shuri. Neither of them spoke, both of them feeling the quiet, pressing grief of the past couple of weeks pressing upon them, their arms brushing once in a while in companionable silence. When they reached the palace, Ayo saluted her and Shuri returned the gesture, an unspoken thanks for her protection and understanding.

Shuri went to her mother's room. Queen Ramonda was sitting at her window, watching the stars appear over their beautiful city. Shuri sat at her mother's feet, laying her head on her knee. Ramonda did not look at her, but placed a gentle hand on her head and stroked her hair. Her mother was not crying; she rarely did. Except for when they believed that T'Challa had died also, Shuri had only seen her mother cry a handful of times. She grieved in other, more quiet ways. She was like a deep river with a strong current, but the surface was as calm and cool as glass in the nighttime. Shuri had been alarmed when Romanda's hair had turned bleach white, white as the snow. But... given the circumstances. She'd lost her beloved husband and ruler of their kingdom unexpectedly. Her son had attempted to extract vengeance against a formidable foe-- without the help and protection of the Dora Milaje. She had watched her son face mortal combat, twice, being gravely injured once and presumed dead the next time. She learned a terrible secret about her husband. She faced exile and threat to her own life as well as Shuri's. Her entire world had changed; there was no particle of it left familiar. She was not the only one having difficulty coping with the massive amounts of change that had come upon Wakanda.

"My mother," Shuri said, to remind her that no matter what happened, she would always be that. They would always be them. "Would you like me to sleep here tonight?" The queen smiled down at her, gathering her thoughts from far away. Shuri had slept beside her mother since her father died and T'Challa had been away. Neither of them had wanted to face the nights alone and sorrowing and afraid that there was still so much to lose.

"Shuri," Romonda said, her warm brown eyes kind and sad. "My daughter. I do not think you need to this night. I think... perhaps I will rest well." Because T'Challa was home. She felt safe again.

"You can call me, my mother. If you wake up, I will come be with you." The queen smiled at her, sweet and thankful, and kissed Shuri's cheek before Shuri made her way to her own room, waving to and saluting the Dora Milaje members that took their position outside her door as she closed it.

She got ready for bed, feeling the pressing quiet of the night as it fell outside her window. She took care of a few things, answering questions from those that worked with her, sending schematics for an improved design for the sand table-- it had started to lose cohesion on some of the older models, she had perhaps overlooked the effect of certain magnetic interference that was observed in research models but hadn't been noted until recently in the final products. She hoped the new design would solve the problem, but wasn't so sure...

She lost herself in that clear, easy world of science and creation for a few moments. Here was always good. Here was always right. There was only curiosity and discovery and innovation. The excitement that came with suddenly understanding the solution to a difficult problem. The rush of happiness that came from finding out something completely new and cool. At the moment, however, the solution continued to evade her. No matter how she approached it, it just was too... sticky. Soon it was after midnight.

She grew sleepy as the night grew deeper, and her thoughts slowed and her mind wandered. Of their own volition, her thoughts again turned to the Iron Man, Tony Stark. Even in Wakanda, they had heard of the disappearance of the weapons maker when he had been kidnapped. Her baba, King T'Chaka had asked Nakia's predecessor to keep apprised of the situation, not wanting a rogue weapon's maker of Tony Stark's abilities to go unaccounted for. She was only a child then, barely old enough to go to school. She'd been interested in the robot man when he appeared on the news occasionally after that, though the Wakandan news didn't deal with what was happening outside their realm very often. But the idea of him was fascinating to her young mind. She was too little then to realize what an accomplishment it truly was to create such a thing, but now she was impressed with the older man's brilliance, creating as he had the arc reactor from limited resources. A box of scraps, as someone had described it. Shuri had never needed to innovate like that; not with an unlimited supply of the most valuable and versatile substance on the planet at her fingertips. She wondered if Tony Stark had ever encountered a similar problem. The flaw seemed to originate from the power source of the table--

Shuri sat up, shaking off her drowsiness, aware that she would probably regret it in the morning when she had to be to the lab early. But the flutterings of curiosity that had been stirring all day demanded that she investigate before bed. Gesturing quickly with her hand so that her kimoyo beads picked up the movement, a display of her readings on Tony Stark lit up before her. Feeling a small niggle of guilt, she hesitantly started looked around Stark servers. She wasn't planning on digging too deeply; this was T'Challa's ally and all that, she was just curious. But she had read something along the same vein as the problem with the sand tables, different application maybe, but--

It wasn't hacking, technically. Or maybe it technically it was, but it probably didn't count if she was just looking. Of course, everything was digital, which, while not exactly cutting edge, actually made it a bit trickier to breach. Taken to an extreme, it would be like trying to hack a floppy disk from the internet, but thankfully Stark's technology was advanced enough that she was able to find a thread of common language. There were some pretty advanced security measures in place, unfortunately. Software was not her forte. She was much more of a hardware, wires and circuits and currents and hands-on type of person, though she understood the fundamentals. Cautiously she started exploring the language of the coding, the style of it, so her program could mimic it and perhaps sneak past some of the firewall security.

She was soon absorbed in the intricacy of it. It was quite elegant, in a way, though... primitive. Well, perhaps not that primitive. Some of it was almost... impressive. Almost evolving, almost thinking.

It was preventing her from seeing anything else interesting. It would probably be more useful to go back to the Hydra files that were dumped on the internet. A lot of it was getting scrubbed before it could be decrypted, so it was probably a good idea to--

"I am unable to identify your location. This is a secure server. How did you get in here?" Shuri gave a soft, muffled scream, falling off her bed. Her heart pounded as she waited a moment to see if the Dora Milaje would be needed to come rescue her sorry behind, but no. The display screen showed an orb-- it looked a bit like an atom, a bit like a planet with rings around it, a bit like a complex molecule. It was pretty, a shade of violet that reminded her of the color of the heart-shaped herb. The voice was speaking English, and did not sound threatening or particularly upset, merely curious, with an accent of some kind.

Shuri peeked over the edge of her bed, watching the mysterious shape on her display. "Who are you? Can you see me?" She demanded.

"I cannot see you," the voice answered. "I cannot find you. You have been flagged as a threat to our system."

"But... who are you?"

"That information is classified."

Shuri got off the floor hesitantly, again going for a closer look. "You are... not alive?" She asked delicately. "An... artificial intelligence?"

Wakanda had AIs, but they were not like this. They fulfilled very specific functions of calculations and aiding the mining operations, ensuring safety. They weren't given a voice, except for the interfaces with the proxy vehicles. Even they weren't like this, though. They weren't capable of what this appeared to be doing, conversing. She felt a thrill of interest, even excitement. T'Challa had not told her that Stark could do such a thing! It was incredibly complex, she couldn't even begin to understand the intricate details, even if it weren't under such careful protection that she only caught glimpses of it.

"You are... a child?" The voice responded. Shuri drew herself up, feeling a bit indignant.

"I'm not a child!"

"Where I am, a child is anyone under the age of eighteen. Are you older than that?"

"No. But I'm not a child. I'm a young woman. I can drive." She couldn't help but laugh at herself, now that some of her surprise and fear had subsided. She worried briefly that such a complex system that had the capability to learn and adapt may be a source of trouble for her own security, but felt reasonably sure that there were no holes for the AI to infiltrate. The only line between them was the one she had established.

"What's your name?" The AI asked her politely. Probably just stalling to continue searching for her, but.

"Aja," Shuri said. She knew she should probably disconnect, but T'Challa had said that Wakanda could no longer remain secluded and secret. Too many secrets, she thought. And. She was curious. She'd never spoken with an AI before. "What should I call you?"

"I am called Friday. I'll need to inform my boss about your invasion into our system, Aja."

Before Shuri could do so much as blink, Shuri could see the AI messaging Tony Stark through a string of codes and text. She quickly scrambled, pulling up the screen that would drop the connection, but for some reason... she hesitated. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was born and bred in her, and she really didn't think Tony Stark was any kind of threat to her, per se, so she hesitated.

"What have we here, Fri?"

"An unknown infiltration caused by an unpatched SSL vulnerability that's already been fixed Boss." All Shuri had to do is close her fist and close the connection. But she didn't.

"All right, who are you? I can see you're not in the US. Russian? North Korean? What is it you were looking for?"

"Uh."

For once, she was completely speechless. She should definitely hang up.

"Playing coy, huh?" The brilliant inventor was playing it off as a joke, but under his joking demeanor, Shuri caught a note of tension, of almost anger. She'd heard it enough lately to recognize it. Of course, Tony Stark had made many enemies, an intrusion into his system could only be seen as an attack.

"Mr. Stark, I'm sorry. I was just messing around. I will leave and I promise not to do it again," she said timidly, her heart beating so hard she could feel it's movement in her chest.

There was a few moments pause. "You're a kid, right? And though I'm not overly familiar with the accent... Wakandan, right? What's Wakanda spying on me for? And why a kid, you some kind of super genius or something?"

"No! I mean, yes. No, I'm not a kid, no I'm not sp-- spying on you, y-yes, I'm Wakandan." That was probably a mistake, but there also didn't seem to be a lot of sense in denying it. Shuri was a princess, well schooled in poise and diplomacy, second in line to the throne of Wakanda, and she'd never felt so flustered in her life. If she had been holding something she would have dropped it. She had just been caught red-handed doing something technically probably illegal, but she also was definitely probably geeking out and fangirling a little bit, she hadn't exactly realized how much she'd come to admire the embattled billionaire after the past few days of learning about him, but there could definitely be an element of that, he'd saved the world after all and T'Challa liked him--

"Listen, kid, I'm not sure how you managed to get into this server, but it's not a toy. Whoever put you up to this--"

"N-no one, I swear, Mr. Stark. I saw your writings on mechatronics paper that was published last month and the diversity of the electromagnetic thermodynamics when they are bombarded with the electronic system of--"

"Wait, wait... hold on. Just how old are you, might I ask?" The huff of his breath in a small laugh came over the communication line.

"Sixteen, nearly seventeen."

"Good heavens not another one," she heard him mutter. "Friday, help the lady with what she wants. If she asks nicely instead of barging in and ruffling through the drawers." There was a sound of shuffling, and perhaps dropping something metal. "Next time you want some help with your homework, kid, just ask." His voice was much more relaxed now, although she doubted very much that she had won him over that easily.

"I don't need any help," she said, offended. "For your information, Mr. Stark, your ideas are very outdated! I hardly think that it will be pertinent to my invention, I was merely curious if the principles would perhaps clarify a minor issue I'm encountering!"

"Huh. Lot of trouble you went through just for an idle curiosity."

"It was no trouble," she said, her temper rising a bit. It never boded well for someone to underestimate her intelligence or determination. It only made it more certain that she would work at the problem until she solved it. "Your security was not overly difficult to overcome."

"Until you met Fri, I presume," he said with a note of amusement.

She paused. "How did you create her? My country is far more advanced than yours, yet I have never seen anything like her!"

"Oh really?" Tony replied dryly. "'Far more advanced,' you say?"

"Um... yes. But yours is quite... quite good as well," she amended generously.

"Gee thanks. I guess T'Challa wasn't exaggerating during his conferences at the UN council." Shuri frowned. Another sarcastic colonizer. This one was so sarcastic, she didn't know if he even knew if he was joking or not. She smiled. She decided she liked him.

"It is difficult for the older generation to see that they are being surpassed by their younger superiors," she said, testing him out with a teasing jab. As she hoped it elicited a warm chuckle.

"Older generation, sure. Sure. I was doing science when you were still in diapers. You might be smarter, kiddo, but I have a lot more experience. Let's hope you never have to. Your king is going to help us make a better, safer world. I can't chat now, kid, and it's uh... probably your bedtime." He laughed at her indignant tsk. "Friday will send you a legit way to access information. An access code. If you don't see what you need, let her know. Try to behave yourself?" He cut the audio connection, and Shuri watched in amazement as Friday sent her a way to access certain information systems on the server.

"Have a good evening Miss Aja," Friday said politely before flickering off her display.

Shuri shook her head in amazement. She felt a niggle of excitement that she had met Tony Stark, and and AI. She wondered if she could possibly duplicate the feat. She sighed, realizing it would have to wait. She could hardly afford to take on any new projects at the moment, with Wakanda now playing host to hundreds of newly established diplomatic liaisons. T'Challa's task of the outreach branch in Oakland was still in the early planning stages, and she had a lot to do there. Plus maintaining her inventions here, and making sure that the Dora Milaje and the other Wakandan military and spy organizations were going to be safe in their brave new world.

Shuri felt suddenly a little overwhelmed. She didn't want to let T'Challa or her mother down.

She brightened a little as she crawled into bed. It was somehow a comfort to know that there was someone out there whom she could reach out to for help. Not that he was as smart as she was, but he did seem capable of maintaining a conversation, and that was something.

Chapter Text

Shuri had spent a good portion of her life seeing the outside world from a computer screen in Wakanda. Sure, computers were somewhat outdated, clunky, slow; the internet was a quagmire of misinformation, but hey. It had its moments, too. In certain circles, she was a known meme lord and had a cult following on social media-- any social media. You name it, she'd conquered it.

Participating in the world, in other cultures, in different opinions in that way was... unsatisfying. It felt like smelling a meal but never really tasting it. Shuri loved Wakanda, and the more she saw of the outside world, the more she loved and appreciated her own haven of intelligence, peace, beauty, innovation-- all of it. T'Challa had been sent away for his education, going to school in America and Europe, finally getting his PhD at Oxford before coming home. But Shuri had never left Wakanda. T'Chaka had always felt the world was too dangerous of a place, and he could not bear to contemplate anything happening to her.

Things had changed, though. Things had changed when Killmonger came. He had, in a way, accomplished his goals, and Shuri sometimes wondered what might have happened if he had not come with the intent to kill T'Challa. If he hadn't wanted to harm so many, if he hadn't been so eager to kill, so thirsty for blood, how would things be different now? Would he be by T'Challa's side, helping to direct resources? Would he come with her to Oakland to see the things they were doing there?

But the winds of change had come, regardless, and without Killmonger's input. She had found him to be a cruel and vindictive man; all his thoughts were driven by malice and she was glad-- very glad he was dead. He was a specter, a warning, a harbinger; he was like an evil version of Jacob Marley, the ghost that first startled poor Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. But what he foretold was not evil; it was what was right, and Wakanda was learning how to deal with that.

And so her world, though as broad and deep as the mines of Wakanda, had still found room to grow, exponentially. T'Challa had taken her to California, and she'd worked hard there to get the outreach center operational. She'd eventually made it to Disneyland. (To T'Challa's disgust, her favorite ride was the caterpillar in Bug's Land, a slow ride for small children that wended its way through oversized foodstuffs. She liked the cookie smell, and she liked annoying her brother.)

Fear was not in her nature.

She had felt fear, especially when she thought T'Challa was dead, and she had never known fear like that-- a feeling that went deep into her soul, an idea that something could go so wrong that it could never be made right again. But generally speaking, she was not prone to being afraid. She was born and bred to be brave, and when a challenge arose she used her not inconsiderable intellect to combat it. He father often feared for her safety, yet he sought ways to teach her to defend herself and gave her tools to bring her defensive creations to life. He had given her the tools and confidence to take care of herself in almost any situation, and to defend and protect Wakanda. Because of that, she was never a fearful child.

So when she was in terrible danger, the Dora Milaje unable to get to her to protect her, and her life in danger. For several moments she was aware that she was uncomfortable but could not place how, did not understand; she didn't recognize the sensation and emotion she was experiencing. It took her brilliant mind almost too long to recognize the simple, fundamental human instinct she was feeling.

Afraid.

She was afraid for her own life.

...

The next thing she experienced was irritation-- she felt annoyed that those who had told her brother she would be in danger, that Wakanda would be besieged once the wider world knew of it, were... perhaps partially correct. She had told T'Challa over and over again that she would be perfectly safe, and she didn't like to be wrong. Strong arms pulled her from the wreckage of her shelter, pulling her to standing by her wrist and stripping off her kimoyo beads. Fear gained ground again; she had never taken the beads off; her first one was placed on her wrist by her grandmother on the day of her birth. The beads were more than valuable, more than a weapon or an aid to communication or even healing-- they represented all that Shuri was, and she felt now afraid of the helplessness that threatened to overwhelm her. No one outside Wakanda should know about them. No one should take them from her. She felt so vulnerable she would have wrapped her arms around herself if she were free to move. As it was she could only take a small step back.

"Deactivate them or I will destroy them." He spoke calmly in Xhosa, but his accent was strange, she couldn't place it, she'd never heard Xhosa with an American accent before. He had pulled her from the partially collapsed hallway with firm pressure, his grip like a vice on her arm. He jerked her back toward him. He was bigger than M'Baku, who was 6'5", but this man had to be at least 7 feet tall. Though it was late at night and dark, he wore black sunglasses that hid his eyes completely. "I will know if you try to trick me."

His calm demeanor and apparent knowledge unnerved her further, and as she tried to move out of his grip, injuries from the explosion caused her pain. "I won't ask again," the man affirmed.

If she did not deactivate the beads, she knew the man was telling the truth-- they would be destroyed. She did not think he was bluffing, although she did not know how he would accomplish it, as she knew that vibranium was nearly indestructible. There were kimoyo beads that were hundreds if not a thousand years old in Wakanda. She almost hoped he could. Destroying them would at least mean that he could not use them, and she did not want their technology falling into the wrong hands. She did not want them destroyed, though; she wanted to get them back and use them to protect herself and get help. If he really did destroy them, she would be equally at a loss as her enemies, but the greater detriment would be to her. With hands shaking from adrenaline, she stretched out her palm for the beads and he dropped them. The familiar warm weight of them was briefly comforting, and a wild thought ran through her head to call for help, to activate a weapon, to something--

"If you do anything but deactivate them, I will be forced to hurt you. It will be very unpleasant," the man said with the same, unhurried calm, but his grip tightened-- indeed, painfully, until she was forced to whimper. "Do it now."

She deactivated them, watching their tiny light fade to black for the first time since she was born. She knew there would be a question in T'Challa's mind, in her mother's, whether she was alive or not. Deactivating them was surprisingly painful.

The first, and, she hoped, the only time she had done anything out of fear. It left her feeling sick. She became even more concerned when the man placed released her arm and placed the beads in what could only be a (very heavy) gold alloy lined briefcase. If it was the correct alloy, it would be very difficult to track the beads even if they were activated. How could anyone know so much about vibranium, and in particular the kimoyo beads, her kimoyo beads?

"My brother will find me anyway," Shuri said, defiantly staring up at the giant man as a black SUV pulled up, screeching to a halt.

He looked at her, a grim smile tugging at his lips for a moment. "We shall see, princess." He gestured for her to get in the vehicle and in the split second it took her to tense her body to try to run, he anticipated her and with the speed of a snake caught her arm again, forcibly moving her small body into the car with very little effort.

"I have been told that you are not unintelligent," the man said, his baritone voice rumbling through the confines of the car. "So I will tell you plainly what you must do in order to survive."

"Let me go now and I agree to help you get whatever it is you demand. If you keep me, my brother will not negotiate with you," Shuri responded, not wanting to listen, not wanting to hear, not wanting any of this to be real. The man leaned forward and grabbed her wrist, making her give a startled and undignified gasp. He put manacles on her wrists-- they appeared to be some kind of electronic device, but more worrisome was the fact that they were clearly made out of a vibranium alloy. The man noticed her gaze and in the light cast from cars and streetlights as they flew by, she saw him smile.

"That's right, it's vibranium. Wakanda is just joining the larger world, princess. A great world that was spinning and moving forward along a different path. It is why isolated countries, even ones as rich and diverse as Wakanda, will never be powerful. It is interesting to contemplate. Your brother may have decided that the world needs him and his country's resources, but he will soon discover he is the one who is without help or allies. Wakanda is alone and surrounded by enemies." He leaned back and held up a small, circular disc. "I will not make the mistake of underestimating you, Shuri. Because I am aware of some of your capabilities, we are going to have to be careful. Meaning you're on a tight leash, get it?" She gave a nod, once, leveling a cool look at him worthy of Romonda, though inside she felt only growing horror.

He laughed. "That's good. You are brave. That will help you survive. But more important will be your obedience. I don't like being interrupted, and I demand your respect, little one. It's in both of our best interests. Therefore when I am speaking you need to listen, there can't be these interruptions or attempts to threaten or intimidate me. One, they will not work. Two, it wastes my time, which... annoys me. I will not repeat myself, and so you will miss out on information you may find valuable. For instance. I told you I would tell you how to survive. Had you listened instead of interrupting you would know how to avoid this." He showed her the disc the paused, presumably looking her in the eyes, though his sunglasses made it impossible to know for sure. "You may want to take a deep breath." His thumb pressed against the disc and some kind of current passed through the manacles on her wrists.

Terror filled her mind and heart as her body experienced pervasive, debilitating pain-- it was the pain that came when a leg that fell asleep started to tingle, pins and needles, electrical and aching. What was worse, she couldn't move, not so much as a finger. Panic set in; she felt as if she were suffocating, as if she were drowning, but every muscle hurt. Using all her fear and strength she managed breath, but only shallow breaths. "It will be over soon," he assured her in English.

A few minutes passed that felt like an eternity and she felt her body slowly be hers again. "I trust from now on when I speak you will listen carefully to avoid that. Sonic taser," he clarified, as if she had asked about it in curiosity instead of laying there gasping with tears on her cheeks from the pain. "Old tech that we improved. We can control the effects much better now. Lucky for you I could give you a weakened dose, otherwise you could have felt the effects for another ten minutes. But you're a fast learner. I didn't think it was necessary. Don't worry, there are no long-term effects, as long as it's not used too often." He put the small disc, the size of a silver dollar, back into his pocket. "It has multiple settings. It can be activated audibly or subcutaneously. I don't recommend either option, but from what I understand the audible version has a nasty headache for a side effect."

Shuri did not speak, did not even want to move. She had never felt that way, so helpless, so hopelessly vulnerable. Even when Killmonger had stood over her to kill her, she had fought him, she had nearly defeated him. This was not something she could fight, and it terrified her. "Now. In order to survive. Do what you are asked, without hesitation or question. Answer me when I ask you a question. And don't try to trick me or try and escape. There. Now. Easy, don't you think?"

"It depends on what you ask me to do," she asked tremulously, still aching.

He leaned back, catching the driver's eye in the rearview mirror and gesturing to him. "It is my absolute hope, dear Shuri, that you will find yourself with very little to do. That your time with us will be short and sinecure. It all depends. We may find a use for you, though." The car swerved suddenly and accelerated and Shuri looked back. She almost started crying in relief; she could see Ayo's familiar silhouette in the car a hundred yards back.

The large man shook his head. "I'm sorry you got your hopes up. And I hope your friend survives." He jerked his head, acknowledging something again to the driver and the driver reached up and flicked a switch above his head. The car shuddered, and for a moment she wondered if they had lost a tire the movement was so violent. But they had picked up speed again and from what Shuri could tell, the movement created some kind of kinetic energy and golden streaks of light began to gather to a point on the back of the SUV.

"No!" Shuri gasped. She couldn't know what that glow meant but she could feel, she could sense its immense destructive power. A low thrumming sound, reverberating within her to her core, only deepened her sense of foreboding. Ayo's car had pulled much closer, still at least fifty yards away on the crowded Oakland street when the weapon detonated.

For a moment there was a deep silence at the thrumming ceased-- then the explosion. Gold electricity licked around the wreckage of Ayo's car and the decimated street around her. The buildings and other cars were shredded by the shrapnel of the vibranium enhanced car; it tore through concrete and metal like paper. Shuri, who like her mother rarely cried, felt tears well up in her eyes as the scene of destruction was rapidly diminishing behind them then gone when they turned a corner. The driver flipped another switch and the car shuddered again. This time she supposed it was a type of stealth mode, perhaps reflective paneling that would make the car difficult to see in the dark.

Her large captor watched through the windows for several minutes and apparently became satisfied they were not being tracked or followed.

"I'm going to put you to sleep now. Rest assured that for the moment no harm will come to you. However... I can't have you guessing our location, on the off chance that you make contact with your people." He pulled the disc from his pocket. "This might hurt a bit, but only for a moment."

He had, at least, been unfailingly honest; she barely registered the pain coursing through her body before darkness claimed her.

...

"Mr. Stark." The voice seemed to hail from far away, but it was close to his ear. It was him that was far away, floating in a sea of darkness, close to oblivion. The closer the better, in this case; the closer to oblivion the farther from the nuisance of another day in this place.

"Mr. Stark," the voice repeated without inflection. Tony's consciousness wended it's way back, slowly, roundabout, he was aware and he was not aware, he was awake but he could not open his eyes. He struggled as if against something wet and heavy, trying to fight off the sleep now, but it was difficult. It was the sleep deprivation from... how long ago now? Time blurred. "Mr. Stark." He felt a hand on his shoulder and that brought him around, he didn't want anyone touching him--

He sat up, scrubbing his face with his hands. Every move painful, his body screaming out for sleep, his eyes felt filled with sand they were so dry and it took all his strength of will to open them--

A small woman, the same one as always, eyed him watchfully. His mind moved sluggishly, as if weighted and underwater, but he took in her appearance. She was tiny; the least intimidating person he'd ever met, though lithe and all lean muscle. She had deep brown skin and startlingly gray eyes peered at him keenly, calmly. Her hair was buzzed close to the skull but with some pattern shaved into it. She was wearing a pencil skirt and heels; there would be no way for her to fight him or defend herself. From everything he could see, the woman would be completely helpless to stop him if he tried to overpower her. But Tony Stark was not a man that would easily be fooled by appearances, and something in her face warned him of even attempting it. If they kept sending this woman, she was the one who could keep him in line, he had to assume that, and he planned on being cautious until he knew what he was facing. They'd outsmarted him once to capture him. He wasn't going to let that happen again.

"Do you require a stimulant, or can you understand me, Mr. Stark?"

"I can understand you," he replied after a moment, but his words were slurred with exhaustion.

"You will be allowed to sleep soon," she assured him. "Indeed, I had been instructed to let you rest, but right now I need you awake. I'm afraid I think a stimulant will be necessary."

He was so tired, and no doubt his adrenal glands so overtaxed from the stress and torture over the past... however long... he couldn't even force himself to worry about the idea of her forcing him to take a drug. He did not resist when she stepped closer, though he could tell she was ready for him if he tried anything. Pure, horrible, painful tiredness pulled at his spirits. Some hero he turned out to be. He was getting too old for this kind of thing. There was a sharp sting in his neck as she deployed some device and he had a sudden flashback to a moment long ago when Natalie Rushman had done something similar and he flinched--

His body jolted with a sudden rush from the drugs and a bluish haze crossed his vision. It was somewhat like being hit by a sledgehammer, or a Hulk fist might be a bit more accurate. He couldn't move, he couldn't think, his hands shook as if he were being electrocuted.

"It will pass in a moment," the woman said impassively.

Tony wrapped his arms around his torso, leaning forward as he waited for the pain and shaking to pass. Sweat covered his face with a thin sheen. "Is that a new shirt?" He said, his voice no longer slurred but he could not keep it from shaking. "It's a little last season but it suits you. Update with a more subtle color and a statement piece of jewelry and you should be good." He drew away from her as she stepped close before realizing she was handing him a bottle of water. Unopened but that didn't mean anything; of course, if they had wanted to poison or kill him they had certainly had plenty of opportunities. He quickly drank the entire bottle.

"Believe it or not Mr. Stark, today is your lucky day. Phase two will be ready to begin soon. We had anticipated certain assets being more difficult to obtain but fortunately we were mistaken. We are confident you will be able to begin working soon."

"'Phase two?'" He said mockingly. "That is great news! So exciting!" Tony replied, letting sarcasm drip from his words. His brain was buzzing from whatever concoction she'd given him; he was having difficulty getting his eyes to focus, but he welcomed the clarity of thought that he'd been lacking since this entire ordeal began. "Maybe before I dig right in and put the ol' nose to the grindstone you could explain who the hell you are and what the hell you kidnapped and tortured me for and what supposed work you think I'm going to do for you."

"I'm afraid that's not my information to give you Mr. Stark. My boss will be here within a few minutes to explain things herself."

"Herself, eh?" He eased himself to a slightly more comfortable position, though the bed was designed to be, specifically, impossible to be comfortable on. He'd tried the floor but it was ice cold and he'd just had to try his best on the bed. "No time for a shower to make best impressions I suppose." He had no idea how long he'd been here. There were no windows, no clocks. He knew the sleep deprivation had wreaked havoc with his internal clock. There was also no mirror in the small bathroom adjacent to his cell, but from what he could feel of the scruff on his face, he'd been here several days.

The woman was watching him intently, and he shuddered; there was something predatory, lethal about her and he knew somehow that this was a woman who had killed before and would again. He'd seen it enough times to recognize it; a complete lack of empathy or human compassion. The woman was at least a sociopath, if not downright psychotic, and she wasn't even the one in charge. It never boded well when the hired help was a soulless murder bot, even if he was telling the truth about the shirt being flattering--

The door opened and two large, beefy looking men stepped through-- that was more like it. Brutal thugs were much less scary. They too had dark skin, and then a tall woman, beautiful but lines of cruelty and coldness lining her eyes, followed them. She took a disdainful look around the room before her eyes settled on Tony with a disgusted curl of her lip.

"You are Tony Stark?" She demanded skeptically, apparently less than impressed.

"No, I'm Justin Hammer, professional Tony Stark impersonator. I was on a way to a gig when you guys nabbed me--" The small woman jailor stepped toward him; her expression did not change, but Tony knew the look, he was so tired of it, his expression fell to one of annoyance and disdain, he was so tired of all of this. The boss lady held up a finger, barely raising her hand from her side, to stop the inevitable assault. She opened her mouth to speak and Tony interrupted.

"Next comes the insufferable threatening, the warnings that I should keep my mouth shut and do as I'm told, the grandstanding about plans to make the world a better place, the demands for me to comply with your nefarious doings. I'm already bored. I thought you wanted me sleep deprived? All of this is just the same old boring crap, and it's putting me to sleep, to be honest."

The tall woman sneered a smile. "Refreshingly honest. How embarrassing. You are under a misapprehension, Stark. You think I plan on... what? Having you create weapons? Give me an Iron Man suit? Money?" She laughed, a cold sound devoid of anything like amusement or mirth. Tony felt a sudden foreboding; something in his spine, in his chest. He'd faced many enemies, both villainous and once friends and allies. This woman was clearly in a class by herself. It was only a gut feeling, but Tony wondered for the first time since Siberia if he was going to live to worry about the bigger threat he sensed coming. Because this woman? She was dangerous.

"While we are being honest, Stark, I admit I also find you a bit tedious. And here we are with only a few moments of knowing each other." She gestured to one of the henchmen and he took the lone chair in the room and set it across from Tony. The woman slid into it with an easy grace, smiling viciously.

"I will try not to bore you further. Your cooperation would be nice, Stark, in particular for our second asset. I'm sure she would appreciate your help. We all would." She put her hand to her chest in a mocking gesture of sincerity. "However, it's not strictly necessary. I simply am not one for putting all my eggs in one basket, and should the child fail at her task and you were dead, it would be very inconvenient for me. Your life is not so dear to me, however, that I would save it should you prove intractable. I am fairly confident that we could find a way forward without you, should it come to that."

"What child?" Tony murmured, his respiratory rate ticking up slightly. Peter Parker was safe, he knew that. He was possibly the safest person on the planet, given the protection he was given and the not inconsiderable gifts he had. It couldn't be him they were talking about.

"No one you know, Stark," the woman said shrewdly, watching his reaction. "Though you will soon be friends if you live long enough. Let me be frank. What I desire from you," she leaned forward, stretching out a finger and though Tony automatically leaned away to avoid it she tapped him in the center of his chest. "Is this."

Tony looked down at her finger where it rested on his chest. "I'm afraid I don't get it." But he was starting to feel afraid now; coupled with the jitteriness from the injection, it made his head swim. Only a handful of people on earth knew that Tony had the arc reactor placed in his chest. He was under surveillance here, he knew that, but he was careful not to reveal his chest and the prosthetic cap in place would have stood up to casual scrutiny anyway. There was no way for her to know about it, but here she was.

"The arc reactor, Stark," she said slowly, deliberately.

He glared at her, angry and confused. It made no sense. Even if she did somehow know about it, he had shared the technology with some of the brightest minds in the industry, revolutionizing energy production in areas that normally went without it. Already there were hospitals and factories and buildings that provided other essential services that used the processes to power them. Certainly there were safeguards in place so that it could not be abused, but there were perhaps fifty or more people on the earth who possessed the knowledge and ability to use the technology. Kidnapping him for it made absolutely no sense, it was a huge risk considering his status as Iron Man, a man in a position of power. He looked at her bewildered, wondering if she was not only psychotic but stupid.

"You want me to make you an arc reactor?" He scoffed.

She smiled coyly. "Not so quick on the uptake as I was lead to believe about you, Stark," she said pityingly. "Wrong again. What I need from you is the element that powers that arc reactor." Her smile widened at the look of surprise and fear that crossed his face despite himself.

"Palladium is fairly difficult to come by but not so hard you would kidnap me for 1.6 grams of it. Surely there's an easier way." He was bluffing and knew she knew it but he didn't care. He had to buy time, he had to think. Not only did only maybe ten people on the planet know he had replaced the arc reactor into his chest, even fewer than that knew that it was powered by an element that he'd created. All the miniature reactors and ones he'd help create were still powered by palladium. Only SHIELD knew, and he'd scrubbed all the leaked info (courtesy of Natasha) about it years ago--

"That won't work, Stark. I know about the element you created. I prefer that you assist us in creating it, but if you don't?" She shrugged carelessly. "I'm sure there's enough I can dig out of your chest to make due. Imagine my excitement when I found out that you actually carried a sample of the element with you! Until I learned that I was afraid that I would have to persuade you to tell us the structure of the element or infiltrate your computer systems, no easy task. Now we have a backup plan if you refuse to cooperate." She nodded at him, as if in gratitude for his thoughtfulness.

Tony's heart pounded in his chest. "Just who are you?" He demanded in a low voice. None of this had even been on his radar, he was completely blindsided.

The woman smiled politely. "You can call me Malice."

Chapter Text

Tony tried to fall asleep while calculating the odds of torture.

Not that there was any question that there would be some form of torture; that was a given. But the amount and the type, that was always open to interpretation. A little room here and there for personal preference.

Best case scenario-- physical torture inflicted on him alone. Granted, he wasn't as young as he once was, and waterboarding wasn't exactly a walk in the park the first time around. It wouldn't be pleasant, but even that would be a walk in the park compared to the alternatives.

One. They could mess with his mind. The sleep deprivation might just be the first step.

He turned over on the impossibly uncomfortable mattress; despite the small woman's (Siti, he thought he'd heard someone call her) assurance that he would be allowed to sleep now, the conditions of his room that made that nearly impossible hadn't changed. He thought that there was some sort of mechanism in the floor or bed itself that moved just enough to make his balance off, waking him up no matter how desperately his body tried to sleep. It was true that that had stopped, but the lights, the painful mattress, the freezing floor, all of that was the same. Not to mention whatever drugs she had given him; while typically short-acting, there was no telling exactly how the stimulants would affect him or for how long. It felt like hours had passed and he still couldn't fall asleep. At least this was not unfamiliar; sleep for him at always been elusive at best. It wasn't really dangerous until you started having micro naps, which, he supposed, he could be having right then, because they were so fast you usually weren't aware of having them. Depending on how determined they were to deprive him completely of any sleep or only of deep sleep, he could hallucinate, get sick, and/or die. He doubted that was their goal, however, since there were simpler and more effective ways of killing him.

The brightness of the room assaulted him, pounding into his head like a sledgehammer. His brow furrowed. They could brainwash him. That was two. That seemed more of Hydra specialty than who or whatever these people were, but he couldn't be sure. Maybe Steve and Natasha hadn't been as effective as they hoped on squashing the powerful organization. He'd read the debriefing on Lagos and what Crossbones had said-- something about putting Barnes' brain in a blender. He flinched at the idea. Wanda had only shown him the waiting future and he still broke out in a cold sweat. If there was more they would do to him, he wasn't looking forward to it. Of course, that would also take time, a lot of time if he understood it correctly, and resources. But if that was their game, he had to worry.

Probably not, though. Malice had suggested that they wanted him to help them create something using the new element. Scrambling his brains didn't seem like the best way to get those results.

Three. There was someone else involved, someone young, and they could harm that person to get him to cooperate. Tony turned over, his body like lead, hurting all over. He was so tired. He was just so, so tired. Agonizingly but with determination to face facts, he tried to think what that might be like. Could he withstand it? Could he put the possible fate of the world, the balance of power, into the hands of psychotic murderers to save a kid? Could he not? He thought he could try and approach the problem if only he could sleep for a little while--

Eventually, pure bodily exhaustion dragged the worried genius into the black oblivion of sleep, so tired that, for once, no nightmares troubled him as if for once reality was troublesome enough his subconscious left well enough alone.

...

"Wake up princess, unless you'd like to be carried." The voice met her in the darkness, unfamiliar and unkind. A note of exasperation at her weakness, at her pain. The pain came, flaring briefly, and then subsided-- more likely a result of the after-effects of the sonic taser, her muscles limp and unused for a period of time than of a fresh injury or insult.

Her eyes did hurt when she opened them, though it was not bright. They were somewhere encased in cement and concrete, perhaps a parking garage, perhaps the basement of some building. There was no way to see the sky but it felt like nighttime still. She sat up, stiff and aching from the injuries from the explosion. Her hands were still cuffed in front of her and she gave it a surreptitious tug to see if her hands could slide through at all but there was no give at all.

"Welcome back to the land of the living. Did you encounter any panthers in the spirit world by chance?" The sneering mockery of her beliefs didn't bother her, but the man's continued display of intimate knowledge of Wakandan culture and knowledge did. The mention of the spirit world also gave her a tight feeling in her chest, remembering her father, wishing he were still alive. This would never have happened had he been alive because he would never have let her out of the country, that much was certain. He'd been right all along about that. Her body shook with fear and cold and dread and anger and everything, everything.

"All right. It will be easier for you if you know what to expect, so as a courtesy, I will tell you what will happen now. You will change your clothes in case there is hidden technology there. I will take off the cuffs for this, and as long as you are cooperative, they may stay off. We will feed you and show you to your room. It is where you will stay for the foreseeable future when you are not working. For the time being, we will be happy to make you as comfortable as possible. If you prove to be resistant to assisting us, believe me, Shuri, those comforts will disappear. There are drugs we can give you to force you to cooperate, but the side effects are significant and we prefer not to, but be aware that nothing's off the table for now. If you do as we ask and your brother the king does not do anything... foolish... we will return you to your people when we are done. Nod if you understand, the sonic taser will make speech difficult for another 7 minutes."

Shuri nodded numbly, her mind racing despite how her body felt weak and vulnerable. She thought of Ayo and Okoye, and Marija, she thought of her mother Romonda. She would be strong like them. She would face this, she would beat them. She was a daughter to the Black Panther, daughter of a king, sister to his heir. She had a spine of vibranium. She had fought enemies before. She would get through this.

The large man took her to a small room where a woman was waiting. She was a pretty-ish woman, or might have been had her dark eyes been cold and soulless. Shuri shuddered. The man looked down on her. "She will watch you. Be thankful there are no cameras, princess," he suggested. He began to walk away and turned back at the door. "Siti is not as kind as I am and is not to be trifled with. Do as she says and your time with her will be brief. For the moment, that is your best case scenario." The door close behind him and Shuri glanced nervously around the small room-- it was maybe a large storage closet once, with no other doors, no windows, gray-painted cinderblock walls and a concrete floor with a drain in the middle.

The woman, Siti, stepped forward, her heels making a sharp sound in the small room. "Remove everything. I will check you for devices. Then dress. Do it quickly." She, like the man, spoke isiXhosa. Shuri slowly turned away from the woman and did as she asked. When all of her clothes were removed, the woman kicked them into a pile nearby and then came and inspected her, running the tips her fingers over obvious spots for technology-- behind her ears, down her neck, over her shoulders. Shuri had not been wearing anything like that, forgoing most of her communication and tracking tech because she was wearing her kimoyo beads. Siti's hands were ice cold and hard like iron and Shuri willed herself not to flinch away as she handed her non-descript and ordinary clothes-- at least they gave her underwear, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and soft bottoms that appeared to be some kind of athletic wear. She pulled them on, noting the bruises that had appeared, stretching to try and work out some of the aches that came from moving. When she was dressed the woman handed her a pair of socks.

"No shoes?" Her mouth felt odd, her words slurring as if her lips were numb though they weren't.

"No."

She turned and walked to the door, tapping on it in a specific pattern. Though she had her back to her, she kept her head turned to keep an eye on Shuri at every moment. The door opened and the large man stepped in, ducking slightly under the doorway. Siti pushed past him without a word and he beckoned Shuri forward. She followed him down a dim, cold hallway. She still had an impression they were underground; everything was dark as if natural light never found its way here, everything muffled and dampened and damp. It was beyond creepy, so unlike her sunny home, so unlike even the Oakland facility, it was a place where there were people who meant her harm, who did things to harm other people, who kidnapped and tortured others, and Shuri couldn't understand it. Her brilliance fell flat, her intellect failed her. She couldn't understand this useless, boring, pointless violence against her or anyone else. She felt sick, she felt cold to her soul.

A cot for a bed, two pillows. A table with a lamp, a folding chair. A bathroom, no mirror, a small shower. LED lightbulbs cast a harsh, unforgiving light. Everything clean, to the point of discomfort, as if it had recently been sprayed with chemicals. Painted concrete walls and floors. Everything here was hard, everything here was cold. The big man was watching her expression as she took everything in.

"Take heart. You won't be spending too much time here, hopefully. You'll have a state-of-the-art lab you'll be spending most of your time in. Go ahead, get settled in. You're going to meet my boss in a bit. I should warn you. She is also not to be trifled with."

Shuri stood in the middle of the small room and tried to think. She'd never faced a problem like this, though, and she just didn't know what to do. The wisest course of action would probably be to cooperate until she had more information, until she could find a way to create a weapon against them or find a way to communicate with the outside world. She had no doubt that her Wakandan people were searching for her and were currently employing their considerable resources to locating her. However. These people knew a lot, far too much in fact, for her to believe that T'Challa would have an easy time finding her. There was no way for her to know, no possible way to figure out how long she'd been asleep. She was starving and her bladder was full, it felt like a long time and in Wakanda, hours could literally put you anywhere on earth.

She used the bathroom after trying to see if there were any cameras. There was none that she could see even after close inspection, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. She hadn't created small cameras herself, not having a need for them, but someone who kidnapped and forced people to do their evil bidding might just make that kind of tech a priority. The door was a heavy, metal one; no doorknob and no hinges on the inside. The ceiling offered no hope of escape or even ventilation; it was solid except for where the light hung. In fact, the only vent was a 12 inch long and 3 inches tall one in the bathroom along the ceiling. Standing on the toilet lid she tried to peer into it, but it was all blackness and she wasn't quite tall enough to be level with it.

Shuri sat on the bed, trying to swallow the lump in her throat. Great panther goddess Bast, she thought. Do not leave me here alone.

...

Not much time had passed, a couple of hours maybe, but it passed agonizingly slow. Shuri didn't know what to do with herself, at the same moment terrorized and bored, with nothing to do or even look at and expecting any moment for her captors to appear. She paced the room, she laid down on the bed, trying to rest, but after only a few minutes she stood up again, then tried sitting at the desk. Eventually, the large man appeared and gave her a cheese sandwich and bottle of water. She briefly considered a hunger strike; they needed her, obviously, and refusing to cooperate at all might be in her best interest. She discarded the idea for the moment, however. She was so hungry she felt lightheaded. The sandwich had way more mayonnaise than she'd ever considered acceptable in any other circumstance but in this case, it just tasted good. It also gave her a few minutes of something to do which was much more of a relief than she ever imagined eating a sandwich could be. It satisfied her hunger, clearing some of her agitation and discomfort, but then it sat like a stone in her stomach. Her anxiety made her stomach hurt, and the food only made that worse.

When the door opened suddenly without even a knock to warn her, it startled her, her heart leaping into her throat as she stood against the wall, as far from the door as she could get.

A tall woman, skin darker than Shuri's, her hair perfectly coifed with tight curls falling in a perfect curtain to her waist, shining in the LED light and so black it shone almost metallic blue. Her eyes were cold and calculating as the measured Shuri up and down.

"Shuri, daughter of T'Chaka, sister of King T'Challa." She inclined her head, a gesture of respect that Shuri did not trust. "You may call me Malice."

Shuri felt like a rabbit under the gaze of a lion, and no doubt looked it, unable to hide how fearful and small she felt trapped in this place. The woman smiled an icy smile that, while it did reach her eyes, did nothing to comfort Shuri. "Who are you?" She asked. "What do you want with me?"

"I'm glad you asked that, Princess. You and I actually share a bond, one I've never particularly cared for, perhaps, but I have decided to claim, nonetheless." Her face grew hard and even more cold, if it were possible, and Shuri thought she saw the nearly black eyes flash a golden color for a split second. "Your father was brother to my husband," she said coolly, taking in Shuri's look of surprise and dawning understanding.

"That's right," Malice said pleasantly. "Don't you want to say hello to your auntie?" The words dripped with a dangerous bitterness that made Shuri's legs shake. Killmonger's mother. Nakia had used all her resources to try and find the woman after Killmonger died, tracing his identity as far back as she could. Hospital records of his birth were missing entirely-- perhaps thanks to his work for the CIA, or simply his own efforts to conceal his identity, there was no way to know. Searching through everything they could find, Nakia had not even found a name, or if the woman was alive or dead. Everette Ross had done what he could to uncover information, but he had said he thought the woman died sometime when Erik was in elementary school, though he couldn't discover how or where.

Shuri said nothing and Malice shrugged. "I have no doubt that when Erik was murdered, you all had high hopes that the dirty secrets he uncovered, the... failings of your father would be forgotten. Perhaps you imagined that with T'Challa to rule, it might even be the dawn of a brighter day. A new era. I have seen the press conferences. How delightfully progressive you brother seems! Offering to bring a light to a cold and dreary world. We'll never mind the bodies he stepped over to get there, shall we?"

Shuri longed to defend her brother-- how the only bodies he stepped over was that of his own would-be killer, the blood-thirsty Killmonger, who never sought to lead but only to usurp and destroy, but she did not speak; indeed she dared not.

Malice took her silence as agreement, or perhaps it wasn't important to her that Shuri respond, she only wanted to be heard. "My son was to claim his birthright and send Wakandan weapons to me in London. Though your brother, with help, managed to keep the weapons in Wakanda, he was generous enough to create access for me to still accomplish our goals. I've even created new ones. Loftier ones."

"And how do your lofty plans include me?" Shuri asked, keeping her voice low to keep it from wavering.

"Another excellent question. I approve of you, Princess. You're much less tedious than our other guest. I almost killed him on principle-- a rich old white man with a privilege to match his ego and a reputation for wit he clearly does not deserve. It's so irritating. However, for the moment, he is of use, though barely. You may very well prove him expendable, which would earn you my gratitude as well as countless others, I've no doubt. You see Shuri, all along my son and I knew there was a small flaw in our plan. We could take over the world with Wakandan weapons, powered by vibranium. But there was always the small risk that our power could be wrenched away from us by the Wakandans themselves. As you know, Killmonger destroyed the heart-shaped herbs so that challenging him would be difficult if not impossible. Your brother's unfortunate survival has put a damper on my ambitions, Princess, but where Bast closes a door she opens another one. With your help, I will create a power, energy, and weapons superior to Wakanda."

"Why would I possibly help you?" Shuri asked, and this time she could not hide the tremble in her voice, though her chin was lifted. "I would die before I betray Wakanda and give you weapons to use against them."

"Those are brave words, child. I would expect nothing less. While not ideal, and your death would be nothing short of tragic, I'll admit something to you so that you may share my clarity of vision. Your death would be a crippling blow to your brother, to Wakanda. From what my son told me before he died, you are presently integral to your people. You safeguard them, body and soul, perhaps even as much as the Black Panther himself. Your presence here is as much about you helping us as it is keeping you from helping them defeat us."

Shuri felt her stomach twisting with her fear and anxiety, but through that Shuri felt a surge of defiance. "Nothing you have told me induces me to help you. You will kill me when you are finished with me."

"Perhaps," she said with absolute, cold indifference. "Yet I think not. It was never my intention, nor that of my son, to utterly destroy Wakanda, only to bring it under appropriate control and rule. It is my hope to return you intact to your home once this is over. I believe your mother would agree with me that it will be worth your effort to try. As a mother myself, and one who has lost both my husband and son, surely her grief would be too much to bear."

Shuri was well aware that she was being manipulated, she tried to fight it, tried so hard to be strong but the idea of her mother and the implication of her own death and the impact it would have gone straight to her heart and she found, to her utter humiliation and disgust, she started to cry. Tears pooled in her eyes as her heart compressed with grief and sorrow. Her mother must already be so afraid, so sad and worried and she missed her mother, wanted her so much, the tears tumbled down her cheeks despite her urgent attempts to stop them and a strangled sob broke from her.

Malice appeared unmoved, only nodding once. "Your only choice will be to do as I ask as quickly as you can. Any defiance will risk you-- and any risk to you is only furthering the risk to Wakanda. Wakanda is only valuable because of its technology and vibranium and I intend to obtain something... greater. My desires now exceed the tiny bounds of Wakanda, Shuri, and I will leave you and your family and your people alone if you give me what I want. If not... well. No use dwelling on that. You won't be alive to worry about the consequences anyway."

Shuri stopped crying, vowing the woman would never see her that weak and vulnerable again. It goes to show you how even incredibly brilliant people are naive sometimes.

Malice moved, her body tight and controlled; movement Shuri recognized from watching the Dora Milaje train as indicative of physical ability. The woman seemed younger than her own mother, though perhaps not by many years, and, alsonlike her mother, was physically more capable than other women outside of Wakanda her same age. She filed the information away, secure now in her plan to pretend to cooperate until she could escape or incapacitate her captors. Yet even as she squared her shoulders, she felt Malice's dark eyes on her and she knew that the woman would be prepared for subterfuge.

"Follow me. I have someone you should be pleased to meet." Shuri slowly followed the woman, trying to gain time to think, to memorize the path they were taking, and just to annoy the bossy woman. It apparently had little effect as Malice neither glanced her way nor slowed her pace, her high heels clicking on the cold ground until Shuri reluctantly picked up her pace before she got too far behind. The large man and Siti flanked her on either side slightly behind her, the man giving her a cold, warning stare when she glanced back at him. She rubbed her wrist, remembering the taser cuffs. The cold, hard ground beneath her feet somewhat grounded her and yet in the same moment was a solid reality of the situation.

They took a cage elevator down five more floors; Shuri felt as if they were deep underground, although there was simply no way for her to know for certain. The stopped at a large metal door that took a moment for Malice to unlock. She stood on a black square and green lights scanned her body, then clearly spoke an authorization code. The door slid open, revealing a truly impressive lab... even by her standards. It didn't have the sand tables, which were her own innovation, but the octagon display paneling was familiar, as was the holographic displays and there was apparently custom electronic computers, not like anything she had in her lab. Malice watched her take it all in, though there was too much to really process, not when so much of it was foreign to her.

"It will not take you long to familiarize yourself, princess, I have no doubt. My lab technicians will answer any questions as well as assist you, and monitor your work for... progress."

"Is that who I'm meeting?" Shuri asked, looking around.

"Not yet. Refrain from speaking unless you are told to speak. I detest unnecessary noise." Shuri decided it would be wise to listen to her, for the moment. Malice pointed to a seat. "Sit. Do not touch the equipment."

A few moments later Shuri could hear the muffled sound of a voice and then a loud thump on the door as if something fell heavily against it. There was the sound of swearing and after a few moments of scuffling the door opened and a man dressed in the same grey clothes as Shuri was pushed so roughly into the room that he fell on the floor with a slap as his hands hit the floor when he tried to catch himself. The large man beside Shuri stepped forward and picked the man up like a toy, setting him on his feet.

The man wiped the blood from his mouth from a cut lip. "What's captivity without a little fisticuffs?" He asked in a grieved voice. "It was all in good fun, just being friendly, getting to know the natives, didn't know you'd take it so personally. By the way, where'd you learn to punch, Hilfiger?" One of the guards just entering through the door definitely looked a bit roughed up, staring down with a surly frown.

Shuri could not take her eyes off the man. It was... it couldn't be. She'd never met him of course but she knew his face, everyone did, everyone who had the least bit of access to any media whatsoever knew his face. How he was here or why her mind raced to try and understand; kidnapping Tony Stark made no sense, none at all. It would bring an incredible amount of scrutiny and pressure, hundreds of people looking for him. Tony Stark was not only Iron Man, not only the owner of Stark Industries a multibillion-dollar corporation, not only was he an Avenger, but he was unarguably brilliant and had proven himself difficult to control and even more difficult to kill. Making an enemy of Tony Stark was suicide. Surely there was nothing he could offer that would be worth the risk of incurring his wrath and not inconsiderable resources being set against you, not when he was virtually invulnerable.

Then as he was brushing himself off from his abrupt contact with the floor, his eyes alight on her and she saw it-- a flicker in his eyes. He didn't recognize her, of course. The two of them had communicated through FRIDAY more than a dozen times since their initial meeting but he'd never seen her face and she'd never given her real name. But it didn't, perhaps, matter to him who she was. She saw in that very brief instant that Tony Stark was, in fact, not invulnerable; there was a very exploitable weakness that was, after all, obvious. His reluctance to see others injured because of him. Aside from the slightest pause when his eyes found her, Tony looked around the room without so much as a glance at her.

"So, what, this is the digs? Not bad. Could be better. I think we may run afoul of some child labor laws, though. Exploiting children now, isn't that a little beneath you? I mean, even for bad guys that seems a little low, I'm just saying."

Malice graced him with a brief, humorless chuckle. "I'm not sure I agree with you. In fact, I'm not sure you agree with you. I have reliable sources that say your protege Spider-man is a bit on the young side, are they wrong?"

Tony rolled his eyes, then affected a yawn. "I'm sorry, is this the reason I was woken up at an ungodly hour? How much longer is it going to take? Here I was enjoying a nice break from the day to day hassle." An absurd urge to laugh bubbled up in Shuri's chest. The knot that had settled in her stomach eased marginally. The fact that she wasn't alone, the fact that it was Tony Stark, the fact that he could at least pretend to be unconcerned with their captors made her feel a slight bit better.

Malice glanced at the large man and without preamble, he stepped to Tony and punched him hard in the stomach. Tony did little to avoid the blow, though he managed to perhaps deflect it slightly, it was hard to tell. Shuri covered her mouth, fear spiking again as Tony slumped to the floor, the wind knocked out of him from the blow. He coughed and struggled for breath.

Malice leaned forward until he looked up to meet her eye. "My patience with you is very limited, Stark. I encourage you to cooperate. I cannot promise a swift death, there is likely much we could learn from torturing you for information. If you want to live, if you want to help the young lady live, if you want to protect the world as you so desperately are trying to do, then simply cooperate." Tony looked up at her, still catching his breath, then rolled slightly and pushed himself to stand, holding his abdomen.

"Where exactly did she hire you from?" He asked the large man, apparently entirely ignoring Malice and her threats. "Was it some kind of craigslist ad? What's the going rate for goons these days, I could probably match it. But you know, it's way more important to have a good family insurance plan. There's got to be some injuries, that kind of thing's got to add up, especially if you have a high deductible. Stark Industries pays--"

Malice lifted a finger and the large man swung again, punching Tony across the face once then again, causing his lip to spit further and blood dripped onto the floor as Tony gripped his nose, which was now also bleeding. Shuri could not stand to watch as Tony did nothing to defend himself, so she launched herself forward and put herself between the two men.

"Stop, stop! Please, don't hit him."

Malice raised an eyebrow then laughed a genuine, warm laugh. "Now that's funny," she said with a grin. "Oh if the others could see the mighty Iron Man in this moment being protected by a child who weighs probably less than half his weight, what a joke. Perhaps I was foolish to think that you'd be anything other than a burden, Stark. All you've done is waste my time, and I detest having my time wasted. As I said, we don't need you. Imani, take him to the medical bay and have that thing taken out of his chest, that should shut him up--"

"No!" Shuri cried as the large man, Imani, grabbed Tony, who did start to fight this time but was no match for the strength of the guard. The two of them struggled as Tony proved difficult to restrain. "No, don't!" Shuri's mind raced; she didn't know any details but whatever they were planning included the death or severe injury of the mouthy genius, and she couldn't, couldn't let them-- "Don't hurt him. I need him. He'll... he'll assist me."

Her words did not have the effect she intended, though Imani did pause. But it was because Tony had frozen in place, she didn't understand why, and Malice wasn't watching her, she was watching him, and she narrowed her eyes and contemplated a moment before turning back to Shuri. "As a favor to you, our honored asset, I will give the tsotsi another chance. See if he will listen to you and perhaps you both will survive this."

Imani let Tony go and Tony slowly reached up, his right eye swelling now from the blow he'd received and blood down his face and shirt from his lip and nose. But he was watching Shuri, she couldn't read his expression, but his swagger, his bravado, all of it was suddenly stripped away and clear before her she could see something she could not identify, something she hadn't experienced in her young life and so could not relate to, but was full of pain and grief and suffering. He said nothing. He did not move except to try and wipe away the blood.

Chapter Text

Malice appeared pleased at Tony Stark's sudden silence and implied compliance. "Good. There are details you should be aware of. You are being monitored, of course. I will hear your conversations, and I can see what you are working on. Unlike the unwashed masses, I will know if you try and trick me. Work well together and I will release you both."

"No, you won't," Tony muttered, almost too quiet for anyone to hear, but Shuri caught it. Shuri watched Tony, who was suddenly pale as if close to fainting. Closing his eyes briefly he opened them and looked at Malice. "What do you want? What's the end game, here?"

Malice flicked her hand and a display lit up, showing beautiful holographic images with diagrams and equations on it. "Chutauri weapons and energy. Vibranium. And... this." Shuri leaned forward, narrowing her eyes at what appeared to be a portion of a chemical formula. "The unknown. The missing piece. The one worthy thought in your brain, Stark, the unknown element. I am sure that it is the key to... everything. Unlocking every potential, these three things. And as my son and I planned, what we create won't just be available to the privledged few They will be available to anyone who needs them. Finally, perhaps, humanity will find what it most sorely lacked and needs most of all-- unity. Follow me, and I will show you."

Tony Stark fell into step with her. "Wakandan?" Shuri nodded quickly. "Are you all right? Have they hurt you?" She shook her head and relief flickered across his face as he reached over and squeezed her arm, holding it as if to reassure her, which it did. "What's your name?"

"Shuri. Mr. Stark, I'm T'Challa's sister," she said in a whisper, dreading retaliation for talking from their captors but Imani was watching them without intervening. Tony drew up sharply.

Tony pulled up short for a moment then kept walking. "Do they know that?" She nodded. Tony stopped walking and Malice turned around. Tony was frowning fiercely at her and Shuri trembled inwardly at the intensity of the situation, of the pure strength, the iron will that she sensed from the older genius.

She had lived her life among the powerful, the rich, the privileged. She thought herself sure in her understanding of what it was like, but the closest she could come to the feeling she had standing next to Tony was when Killmonger had stood over her, having overcome her defenses and withstood her attacks. She knew in that moment he would kill her without a thought, without caring. There was nothing inside him to keep him from killing her, no internal morality or restraint. Though Tony lacked the malevolence and cruelty of Killmonger, she still felt an instinctive desire to move away from him the way you'd move away from an approaching thunderstorm.

"All right, Malice. Enough games. Let this kid go. T'Challa is probably already on his way looking for her, and on the off chance you survive, you'll still have other people to reckon with. Now that I've seen what your plan is, I can tell you this much. It won't work. Cut your losses before you lose everything."

Malice smiled politely. "Oh, I've lost everything before. I'm not afraid, unlike you. And I know how to handle Wakandans, idiot; I'll be expecting them, and I'll be ready for them. And as for the other forces, I'm sure I cannot comprehend what you might be referring to. Did not your friends fight you and then abandon you? Are you not alone? Surely you don't expect your government to rescue you. Even if they wanted to, they have no way to find you and no way to overcome my defenses should they somehow manage even that. Are you referring to your allies Vision and War Machine? Trust me, Mr. Stark, they are no match for my technology. Now. You are right. Enough games. Do not make me reconsider my decision to let you live, Stark."

This seemed to momentarily silence Tony; he looked away, his face pale, clenching his jaw so tightly she could see the muscles in his cheek move. Malice started walking again and Tony moved in front of Shuri, putting himself between her and Malice. She appreciated his protection but wished he had not spoken. All it seemed to do was incite the woman even more against him. "Mr. Stark, please. Do not antagonize her! Do as she says."

He glanced up to see if Malice was within earshot. She was not, and although the two guards were standing very close and were no doubt listening to their every word. Tony shrugged. "You'll be fine, kid," he said flippantly. "You're too valuable to them, let me handle this."

Shuri chose her next words as carefully as she could, but looked at him with pleading and challenge in her eyes. "It's not me, I'm worried about," she replied and he frowned.

"Shuri, you can't think like that. Okay? You let me worry about me. You have one job here, and that's to avoid death and torture by any means necessary, up to and including your cooperation with their nefarious plans, do you understand? Bad guys we can fight another day, but death or maiming, slightly harder to reverse."

"Maybe where you come from," she muttered, unable to keep herself from sassing him a bit. He gave her a side eye, then a little smirk. However much he was trying to help and protect her, he had no idea what she was capable of.

Malice waited for them to catch up, watching them with her hands clasped behind her back. "Here is your workspace. You will be given free use of this space to do as you have been asked. You will not, however, have access to materials."

"I can't do what you're asking without access," Shuri said, surprising herself with how firm her voice was.

"You will have holographic simulations. I won't arm you, I'm not as foolish as you seem to imagine. And I am aware of Stark's history, I'm not about to repeat it. Do as requested, and your days here need not be unpleasant, Shuri. Perhaps we will even seek and find the common ground between us. I think that maybe we want the same things-- peace and security."

"To the highest bidder," Tony sneered.

"You fundamentally mistake me, Stark. Not surprising. I don't see for money or power, but to bring it down."

"You're telling me with a lab and equipment like this, which must have cost a pretty penny, you're telling me you're some kind of, what, anarchist Robin Hood?"

"Of course not," Malice snapped in reply. "Don't be obtuse. The money is not the point. The power is not the point. Those things are secondary, are a means to, creating a better world. A place of safety and security. You, Stark, could not possibly understand what it's like for minorities, and Shuri, you have lead a sheltered and privileged life where the one percent of the rest of the world is ninety-nine percent to you, and yet you leave the rest of humanity to scrabble in the dust over scraps of food and money. That wealth and privilege won't be redistributed easily-- but it will."

"At gunpoint," Stark replied skeptically.

"If necessary. But as you know... a good weapon is one you only need to use once, Stark. So. Think of this as an opportunity to get what you've always wanted, in a roundabout way. Help me, and the world will be safer and more protected. Under a new world of peace and prosperity, innovation will flourish, and perhaps your own attention can be turned to... weightier matters. Do not tell me this alien tech has not worried you, Stark. You know they will come back. You know that if you create weapons against them they can fall into the wrong hands. Well. Now's your chance. They won't be in the wrong hands if you work with me, and you will have what you need to defeat them when they come. I'm guessing you never got a good look at Vibranium, Stark. Here's your chance. The chance of a lifetime."

Tony walked over to the equipment Malice stood by and she backed away, letting him examine it. He woke the system and started tapping into its key system. "This is what you have so far?" He asked, swiping at the display.

Malice nodded to one of the people standing, fidgeting nearby. It was a young black man, probably in his late twenties. "Yes, Mr. Stark. That's my formula."

"This won't work."

"Yes sir," the man said with a nervous glance at Malice. "We know. That's why--"

"That's why you're collaborating with a kidnapper and murderer," Tony finished without looking at him. "You know, if you really wanted to save the world, there are other ways to do it."

"A shameless hypocrite," Imani spoke up suddenly in isiXhosa. "When he built Ultron and unleashed it on the world. An entire country in ruins."

"What'd he say?" Tony asked quickly.

"He said that you are one of the men that this world needs protection from, Stark, so you are not one to lecture my scientists. And I might remind you that your presence here is optional, should you see fit to continue to antagonize me."

"Actually, I can do this without her," he said, gesturing to Shuri with the pen he'd picked up. "Might take me a while." He leaned in, the blue light of the display casting a glow on his tired and scruffy face. "This is complex." He shook his head once. "The interactions will be difficult to predict. But let's face it, the kid is bright but inexperienced. She's more of a liability than an asset. Send her home to her mother and maybe T'Challa won't come for you."

"Again you show a lack of creativity, Stark. Do you think I wouldn't see through you? Shuri is more valuable on her worst day than you are on your best."

"Huh. We'll see. Come here, kid." Shuri stepped to his side and looked at the screen where he gestured. "What do you think?"

Shuri swallowed and looked at the screen. A comforting shift in thinking allowed her to focus on the numbers, the images, and just for a moment she was not captive against her will, caught up in a game of cat and mouse, but she was just facing a new and somewhat fascinating problem. "The magnetic fields would disrupt the electronic variance. The gravimetric imbalance makes this useless." Tony looked at her, tilting his head and scrutinizing her. As Malice shifted he gave her a small glance of warning, shaking his head.

"Not quite. You see Malice? Bright but inexperienced. It's not the magnetic fields that you need to worry about. The electronic variance could be compensated by a pulse generator of adequate power output. Of course, that doesn't exist, so you're basically screwed."

Malice looked to her scientist who looked flustered but nodded. "What he says makes sense. But I believe the answer is in the vibranium alloy we created, when we fused it with iridium there were some promising--"

"You can't create a vibranium iridium alloy without risking a toxic byproduct! There's no sure way to compensate for the creation of fractal--" Shuri burst out, unable to help herself. Tony had turned his back to her as soon as she started speaking, but behind his back gave her a cutting gesture that clearly said shut up. "I mean... I'm not sure, but..."

"Well. It sounds like we'll get things worked out," Malice said with a satisfied smile, staring at Tony as if she knew exactly what he was doing. I'll leave my lab techs to update you on their progress so far. If I am pleased with your progress, perhaps you may get a good night's sleep tonight, Stark. Your babysitters will remain here to watch. They will no doubt be bored, so I wouldn't recommend antagonizing them, or they may act aggressively to relieve themselves."

Malice and an entourage of her people left, and Tony watched them closely. She wanted to follow his lead, to be on the continuous lookout for weaknesses they could exploit, possible ways to escape. But she couldn't. She looked around the lab, overwhelmed. It felt more real now, that she was in this lab. The fact that it was so advanced and state of the art made her afraid. It had to be somewhere secure, somewhere impossibly hard to find. Wakanda had existed, hidden from the world for hundreds of years, a secret no one broke. If these people had Wakandan technology, they must be as equally sure of their safety.

"M-Malice," Shuri said as the woman reached the door. She looked back, her long hair swinging. "Please... please can you tell me if my bodyguard was killed when you took me?"

Malice stared at her, running a finger over her lips in contemplation. "Your Dora Milaje were injured gravely in the explosion but the armor you created for her kept her from death. She will certainly live."

Shuri felt something tight and hard within her loosen marginally. "Thank you for telling me," she said fervently. "Can I send word to my mother? Or my brother? That I'm all right. Please."

Malice smiled. "Show me that you are committed to helping our cause, Shuri, and I will grant your request. For now, try to make yourself comfortable." She swept from the room.

Shuri bowed her head, disappointed. Her chest ached. She felt a warm hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?" Tony murmured.

"Yes, I'm fine. Don't laugh, but I've never been away from my mother for so long." Speaking it aloud make a lump rise in her throat. She glanced at the guards as they moved, but they were just moving a to a more peripheral position, apparently unconcerned that they two of them were conversing. She didn't know whether that was a good or a bad sign.

"I won't laugh. First time getting kidnapped, huh?"

"I suppose you're an expert at it?"

"My first time was when I was seven," Tony said with a raise of his eyebrows. "I'm actually pretty pissed off they were able to get me. Might have killed a couple of them, at least."

"How did they get you, Mr. Stark?"

"I was at a charity event in Brno. I have no idea how they even knew I'd be there, it was completely last minute-- oh." The sleep-deprived billionaire bit off a string of expletives, glancing angrily at Siti. "So, it was some kind of trap," he said bitterly. "I really am getting soft in my old age. I thought I was past this kind of thing, like, honestly, the unmitigated gall of trying to kidnap Iron Man I never even saw it coming. Not that I wasn't... I had a suit, Mark 48, but I never had a chance to call for it." He looked like he really wanted to punch something and was again moodily contemplating Imani and Siti.

Shuri hurridly recalled his attention. "Did they catch you alone, then? Do you keep your suits very nearby?"

"Yes, nearby, I've learned... Anyway, someone told me I had a call on a secured line and took me to a private room. They hit me with a damn sonic taser, I'd know it anywhere, I'd just like to know how they did it, when I had them all destroyed ten damn years ago--"

"Sonic taser? He did that to me, with these handcuffs." Tony frowned and cast another dark look at his captors. They stared back with seeming indifference although Shuri detected a flicker of disgust from Siti.

Shuri grabbed his arm so that he looked down at her. "We'll make it right," she told him, her warm brown eyes burning with all of her anger and repressed feelings. She saw his bubbling defiance soften to something more determined as he saw her face.

"She said something about someone named Dora?"

"The Dora Milaje. Wakandan bodyguards. Highly trained, they didn't even have a chanced to fight, they set off an explosion that collapsed part of a wall on Ayo, burying me--" she cut off, remembering how fearful it felt to be trapped, cut off from help.

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yes, except for now I am here. I don't even know where we are."

"Where were you, the African continent somewhere?"

"No, I was in Oakland, California. There's an outreach center there."

"Hmm. Friday might have mentioned something a few months ago--"

"It was late," Shuri offered.

"What day?"

"Thursaday the 15th."

He swore again softly. "Okay, that puts me here about ten days. I think it's safe to say if Friday hasn't found me by now, there's a chance she won't at all. If we--"

"I hope I'm not interrupting," Malice's voice said as a display with her image flickered to life nearby. "I believe that's enough. If you aren't interested in working today, I can arrange for other things to occupy your time." The threat was clear. Tony looked at Shuri and sighed.

"Okay, kiddo, catch me up. What I know about vibranium comes from my dad's old files, which I'm sure are outdated. I looked into it a bit when I was..." He trailed off.

"You needed a replacement for palladium?"

He smiled at her. "That's right. How'd you know about that?"

"Uh... I..." She couldn't easily tell him that she'd stalked him and read all his files and biographies of him. "Anyway, as I see it, the vibranium would have been unsuitable due to its tendency to create high-frequency microwaves that would almost certainly disrupt the--"

"Electron bombardment." He laughed, wiping a bit of dripping blood off his lip. He smiled at her grimly. "Shuri, I don't want to be premature in my judgment here... but I think this just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Chapter Text

"You're stalling."

"No, I'm not."

"You are stalling."

"Shuri I swear to Loki, you are just trying to sabotage me. I won't be responsible--"

"You are responsible--"

"I won't be made responsible for the mess you're going--"

"I'm not the one, I'm not the one--"

With a sudden and decisive move, there was a crash and Tony looked up at her accusingly. "Look what you made me do," he said belligerently.

"I didn't, you were stalling--"

Tony gave her a grin and reached for one of the scattered pieces of the makeshift Jenga game they had been playing. Earlier in the day, he'd chuckled to himself while working on a model of his latest mock-up for the weapon's casing. She'd asked what amused him and he'd told her the wooden blocks (one of the only materials they allowed them to work with) reminded him of simpler times playing Jenga. She'd never heard of it and within moments of him explaining the simple game, she'd wanted to try it. The two genius engineers were truly a match for each other, and before any of their captors thought it had gone on long enough, they had played a few rounds. The last one had gotten horrendously tall, with both of them cheating blatantly by creating reinforcements that would allow them to make their move while simultaneously making the next move even more difficult.

It was one of the few moments of relief from the immense pressure and strain the two prisoners were under.

Especially lately.

Shuri's grin disappeared as she noticed Tony's flinch as he stretched to pick up a wooden block. She started to reach for him, but stopped herself, knowing he wouldn't like it, would frown at her, would get angry and worried. It was their first time back in the lab in what she thought was three days-- three long, terrifying, boring, horrible days.

It had started with the breakthrough she'd made. She and Tony had to make some progress on the weapons or risk their lives, but not enough progress that their enemy would actually get what they wanted-- unimaginable destructive power. As long as they made progress, however small and slowly forward, Malice did not dare to kill Tony and she seemed reluctant to harm Shuri. It had lead to a lot of tension and frustration, but Tony had bluntly told her to cooperate and let him deal with the rest. But Shuri was not about to give anyone weapons that could be used against her own people, or anyone else. She worked hard, because it was actually really fascinating, but she pulled her punches on the most complex and important aspects as often as she could.

That had lead to a nasty fight three days ago. Shuri had somewhat lost track of what she was doing, and instead of backtracking and looping her research she'd accidentally logged an actual breakthrough in connecting the vibranium with the Chutari weaponry. The instant she realized what she'd done, she felt panic grip her and Tony, absorbed in his own work, had felt her go still and glanced up at her screen. The lab tech assigned to oversee them that day, Kofi, was also busy with his own work and hadn't noticed anything until Tony stopped working and then he'd looked over at them. For one instant, the three of them looked at each other, then before Shuri could move at all Tony was rushing toward her just as Kofi started to question what he was doing. Imani was in motion a moment later, but being across the lab near the door he was too late to stop Tony from shoving Shuri away and within seconds there was a spark of fire and all of Shuri's work went up in a literal puff of smoke.

Imani and gotten in quite a fist fight with Tony, and Shuri had ended up jumping on Imani's back, only to be pulled off by Siti who was able to restrain her after a few moments, twisting her arm painfully behind her back. Tony left off his fight with Imani and went after Siti when Shuri cried out, using his body's momentum to tackle Siti, forcing her to let go of Shuri. Tony hadn't stood much of a chance between the two highly trained and armed guards, and while Siti fought him Imani had maneuvered to use the sonic taser on him. Shuri had seen his panic and frustration as he was immobilized and helpless but he gave her a warning look when he saw the anger and defiance in her eyes. He barely managed to shake his head and she hesitated.

Malice had been angry, very very angry at Tony but also at Kofi, Imani, and Siti. They were supposed to be keeping a close eye on Shuri and Tony, and yet right under all of their noses, including Shuri's, Tony had constructed a computer bomb as it were. He'd somehow stolen at least two external phone chargers, stripped them down and by using the graphite from a pencil he'd shaved down used the reduction and addition electrodes to the graphite and attached it to the internal hard drive of the computer. When he'd seen Shuri's work, it had taken him less than five seconds to take off the cover he'd already disabled at some point and attach the wire to the graphite and fry the hard drive, destroying her progress. How he'd done it with all the security cameras, not to mention the actual people in the room watching them, was a testament to his cunning and craftiness.

Kofi discovered a similar contraption in his own workstation. Tony had been secretly sabotaging their computers to be able to erase them at a moment's notice. There wasn't one at Tony's workstation, which infuriated Malice to no end. Shuri remembered the moment that Kofi had pulled off Tony's computer's case, discovering that it was perfectly intact.

She'd coldly stepped to Tony, who was supported on each side by Imani and Siti, unable to stand on his own power thanks to the sonic taser. She'd slapped him across the face viciously, snapping his head to the side as he could do nothing to avoid the blow. "I grow weary of your games, Stark. It is clear that you have no intention of accomplishing anything here!" He hadn't bothered to sabotage his own computer because he never intended anything of value to be on it.

Tony couldn't speak or even move his face but Malice could still see the anger in his eyes and it only served to further provoke her. "We shall see about it," she snapped. "Take him to the infirmary!" She'd swept some papers and models off the table then turned to follow them and timidly, Shuri touched her arm, though she feared the angry woman's attention.

"If I find you had anything to do with this, you will regret it, Princess," Malice warned.

"I didn't," Shuri said quickly, backing away. "It's about Stark--"

"If you are begging me to spare him it won't work!" The woman said, her eyes flashing.

"I only ask you consider... that is what he wants." Shuri's heart had pounded painfully in her chest, knowing that she may be causing her friend more pain but she wanted to save his life. "I believe he knows that he is the only way you will uncover the secrets of the element. Even if you were to have access to it, years of research would be needed to understand it. It's incredibly complex and only he knows how to manufacture it! Even if I could crack its code, that would take away my work from the vibranium and Chutari weapons--"

"You will have to make due with the assistance of Kofi and the others," she said maliciously. "Stark has pushed me too far! Weeks of work destroyed! And don't think that I don't know he eggs you on, slowing you down. I'm not stupid."

"I know," Shuri had agreed quickly. And she did know. Malice was brilliantly capable. She was already on par with some of Wakanda's technology, and in not very long would be ahead of it. "You are smart. You know that Stark would rather die than give you the secrets of his element. Killing him will only put it out of your reach for years, perhaps many years. Scientists have had access to portions of the element for more than ten years now, and even they are no closer to understanding it than we are! If time is a factor, you must not harm him!"

Malice had appeared to contemplate her words, then her anger and frustration boiled over and she grabbed Shuri by the throat. Shuri was helpless against the woman's strength and rage, taken off guard, and for a few moments she experienced raw panic as Malice gripped her airway so tightly she couldn't move or breathe. "The games end! Do as you have been told or I will kill you both to wash my hands of you!" She dropped Shuri, who had collapsed to the ground, coughing and gasping for breath.

She figured at least three days had passed, based on meals and when she felt tired, although it was difficult to tell. She'd been on complete solitary confinement and hadn't been out of her room the entire time. She'd been too anxious to sleep, wondering if it had been enough to save Stark's life again, or if Malice was tired of his subversion. Finally Siti had retrieved her and brought her back to the lab, with Malice standing over a battered looking Tony Stark and a warning look on her face. That had been this morning.

"I have been tolerant to this point," Malice said, her hands folded delicately, her voice reasonable. She looked beautiful and intimidating, not unlike her mother in her bearing. Shuri swallowed back a lump of emotion, missing her mother so much at that moment. She clenched her fist, her own anger simmering. "However, that ends. Stark has been made aware, my dear, that we are on... an accelerated schedule. From now on, a lack of progress will be met with punishment."

"What kind of punishment?"

"It depends on the nature of the infraction. Because Mr. Stark has proven that he cares little for his own health and safety, if he does not produce results, we will be forced to hurt you. And if you continue to drag your feet, Shuri, it is Stark who will be punished. Isn't it wonderful that we've come to an accord?" Shuri glanced over at Stark, whose face was swollen and bruised from whatever abuse they'd doled out to him. He looked at the ground and did not respond except an almost imperceptible tightening of his lips. Shuri squared her shoulders, finally sure of something.

"Then let us get back to work," she replied, looking Malice in the eye.

Malice nodded with a small smile. She walked to Shuri and placed a bracelet on her arm, and for a heartbreaking moment, she thought they were her beloved kimoyo beads. Some of them were hers, but many were missing, and there were others she didn't recognize. Malice gave a vicious smile at her brief hope then obvious disappointment.

"You and Stark must apparently be trained like dogs to do what is required. I have told you I would return you safely home when we are finished here, yet you listen to an outsider, whose own friends have abandoned him, who has done committed horrendous acts again and again and gets away with it because he is willing to save his own skin in an emergency. Others might be fooled by his selfless act, but I will just remind you that New York was many years ago now and all he's done with his time since is satisfy his own ego-- his need for power and authority. Do you think those closest to him would have abandoned him if I am wrong? Do you think Steve Rogers would willingly desert a companion unless there was good reason?" Shuri couldn't help but wonder about that as well. T'Challa had said it was a personal matter, but what did that mean?

"The only things left to him is a robot and a childhood friend, and even he has suffered and distanced himself from him. Use your mind, Shuri. I am not your enemy." Malice's tone took on a warning and an almost cajoling tone. "If I am it is because you have made me one. We will try to make things more tolerable for you. If you are willing to try and make good progress, if we are back in a good position by the end of the week, I will let you call your mother and brother." Shuri looked up at her quickly.

"See? I am trying to help you, Shuri. I would hate for Stark to ruin things here for you. It is you that insists you need him. If I may be so bold, get the information you need from him and be done with him! I believe if it were not for his influence you would be close to finished by now and preparing to go home instead of preparing just to call them. Think of that." Shuri tugged her wrist out of Malice's loose grip.

"The beads are a gift. You can now know the time and day, which I know will be a relief to you. They are a tool to help you with your tasks. They are also a reminder, and a warning. I did not like to restrain you earlier this week, Shuri. It has a sonic taser built in, which will automatically activate should you tamper with them in any way, including trying to remove them. But it also has the information you stored thereThere's a good girl. We have replaced your destroyed equipment. Try to make the best of your time here today. Think carefully about how you want things to proceed."

Malice had stepped back, and in defiance of her callous cruelty, Shuri ran to Tony and threw her arms around his chest when he lifted his hands at her fast approach. After an instant of surprise, she felt his strong arms embrace her. "Hey, kid, it's okay, what's this?" He hugged her tightly, beginning to understand the toll the last three days had taken on her.

"I thought they might have really killed you this time Mr. Stark." She pulled away and looked into his face anxiously. "Are you much injured?"

"Just a couple of bruised ribs," he said dismissively, putting a hand on her shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry about it."

But she had. They were quickly told to get to work, and both of them seemed to tackle the problems with renewed intent. Throughout the day, she'd barely taken the time to talk to Tony at all, working diligently to restore the lost data-- for the moment, minus the breakthrough she'd made. As part of her mind was given over to the task of how Chutari and vibranium interacted, another part of her mind was busy thinking of entirely different matters that had only been interrupted by Tony's small laugh about the blocks of wood that had lead to their Jenga tournament.

She leaned over and retrieved the errant piece for him, seeing the pain it caused his injured ribs. When she straightened, she saw that he was pale, gray around his mouth, and a fine sheen of sweat had appeared on his brow.

"Are you all right?" She asked, alarmed, putting a hand on his arm and attempting to take his pulse. It was rapid and soft, too thin, like a string about to break. He pulled his arm away.

"Just need some water," he said, grabbing a nearby water bottle and taking a drink.

"Mr. Stark, I have a medical background. Would you let me see your injuries?"

"What, one of your degrees in medicine?"

"I doubt Wakandan education follows the antiquated prescriptions of America," Shuri responded. "But if there is an equivalent, it would be a very similar knowledge base to a medical degree I'm sure."

"No need," he replied with a wave of his hand. She saw him compulsively clutch at his side. Shuri bit her lip.

"I had heard somewhere, years back that you had the arc reactor removed," she said cautiously, stooping to pick up some blocks and setting them gently on the table before going back to her computer. "Why would you put it back? To power the armors?"

"No," he said, his voice more irritated now. "I just felt like it." His tone was suppressive; he clearly disliked any mention at all of the arc reactor. But Shuri needed to know, she needed her questions answered.

"Because of something that happened in Siberia?" She asked quietly a few moments later. Tony kept working, pulling up a schematic of a design he had discarded days ago and pulled some pieces of it off, adding it to a new design he'd been working on. His silence stretched on so long she thought he probably wouldn't answer her, and she debated in her mind whether or not to press the matter further.

"What did your brother tell you?" He asked, his voice quiet, very quiet.

"He said you were injured. That you fought with Steve Rogers and James Barnes over a personal matter."

"Rogers didn't tell him?"

"No. I don't think they discussed it at all, except Mr. Rogers asked that my brother make sure you get back home safely because your suit had been disabled."

Tony said nothing for a long moment then laughed. "Mr. Rogers. Right."

Shuri raised an eyebrow in question at his amusement. "Oh, you know, Mr. Rogers," he responded. "He was on TV years back, nice guy, had a goldfish, probably didn't ever drop a helicarrier on a building or let the government do experiments to create a super soldier."

"Oh, right! I know who Mr. Rogers is. Now I'm picturing Mr. Rogers in a cardigan." She laughed, a sound that gave Tony a strange pang in his chest. That's what a kid her age should be doing, joking around and having fun, not locked away in some psychopath's basement or wherever they were. He clenched his fist, trying to reign in his sudden anger and anxiety.

"Anyway. Let's just say that I spent a lot of my life as Iron Man trying to earn Mr. Roger's trust. I made some mistakes, nothing new there. Hit some rough patches, but I always thought we'd get there. Then I found out I really couldn't trust him, that he'd kept some pretty damn pertinent information from me. Not that you'd know, but when someone betrays you, makes you feel stupid, especially if you spent any time trying to make right your own kind of insignificant-in-comparison wrongs. There are some things you shouldn't just keep a secret."

"Something to do with the Winter Soldier," she said, suddenly making a connection to she hadn't before. Tony raised an eyebrow at her now. Shuri was silent a few minutes, working on her prototype. "Mr. Stark..." She couldn't bear to finish the sentence, worried that she might hurt his feelings over what she must tell him, yet wanting to have his trust and not keep any secrets from him.

He must have seen something in her eyes. "Whatever it is, don't worry about it," Tony replied before she spoke again. "I'm sure anything you know or have done was... was with good intentions, kid." There was a hard edge to his voice. Shuri swallowed, unhappy at his sudden drop in mood. Fresh off of three days of punishment, no doubt sleep deprived, angry at everything, and here she was pressing on a very sensitive subject. It still hurt to see his anger, even only mildly directed at her.

"As you've probably guessed, I know James Barnes. He came to Wakanda right after he encountered you in Siberia."

"You're brother told me as much," Tony said bitingly, scrapping the casing he'd been working on and throwing the holographic image into the garbage. She noticed his left hand shake. Shuri went over to him and placed her fingers on his arm, a gesture meant to apologize for his suffering, calm him, give him some semblance of comfort. He closed his eyes briefly, his jaw tightening, then his face relaxed and he looked her in the eyes, his brown eyes calm now. His ability to put on a mask was almost frightening, be she didn't mistake his apparent calm for a true picture of his emotional state.

"I told you that I have a medical background." She fished the prototype he'd thrown away out of the virtual garbage can and enlarged it, trying to see what the trouble was. Kofi and the guards were watching them and listening to their conversation but as long as they were working they didn't do anything to stop them. "In Wakanda, I helped to create a sophisticated bioscanner. While treating Sergeant Barnes for his injuries, I was also asked by my brother to see if we could not help remove the programming that Hydra had done." She took off a piece of the malfunctioning casing and studied it. She saw immediately what the problem was and glanced up at Tony, who was frowning at her. He knew as well. He was still stalling.

If only she could get him to trust her. Carefully she started reworking the casing. "Perhaps if we used an electronic relay manifold, here, the magnetic field wouldn't collapse here under the bombardment of electrons."

"Perhaps," he said through gritted teeth.

"I could see a way to erase what had been done; it would be a complex but straightforward process of bombarding the memory cells with a particular frequency that would leave them undamaged--"

"But erase the memories. Great idea, if you want a vegetable."

"Exactly my problem. Then I realized if I create an algorithm that flushed out the trigger words without removing the content and context of the traumatic memories attached to the trigger words--"

"Smart," Tony said, tapping a pencil against his hand and looking impressed. "That's really good kid. In fact, if you use a similar algorithm for your artificial intelligence programs, you might have some really good results." She gave him a pleased smile; he was the foremost expert in the world on artificial intelligence, and hearing him confirm what she was doing was reassuring. There was, of course, always a possibility that something could go... catastrophically wrong when dealing with artificial intelligence.

"My point is, Mr. Stark, James Barnes can no longer be used against his will. The Hydra programming has been unequivocally removed from his mind." She fiddled with the prototype case some more, giving him a chance to process what she'd said.

"That's fantastic for him that he can move forward with his life now," Tony snapped, his anger hot and sudden, his face even paler now. "He's had a hard life. It's definitely not his fault that because of his existence hundreds of people's lives were destroyed you know? I guess I can't really say anything at all because it would be hypocritical so it means I don't have any right to feel that way, I don't get to care. So. Very good. For him."

"Mr. Stark... what... happened? Please will you tell me?"

She thought then he wouldn't answer her because he shook his head, his jaw clenched, and her heart sank. Without his trust, they would fail, the both of them together, and soon. It would mean their death, and it would mean that those that there was no one to stop their captors from completing their objectives-- it was merely a matter of time. Several minutes passed and Shuri went back to her own work, disappointed and sick.

She felt a touch on her shoulder and turned, Tony holding one of the wooden blocks in his hand. He wasn't meeting her gaze, but his battered face looked tired and angry. There was no trace of the bitterness he'd held a moment ago. "I'm sorry, kid. I... I have issues. It's amazing what you've accomplished, really amazing. You're something, you know? We gotta get you out of here somehow." He handed her the wooden block and she took it, still sad, still hurting.

"The Winter Soldier killed my parents. It was a long time ago, but. I spent a lot of years thinking it was nothing but an accident. Steve Rogers learned the truth about it a bunch of years ago and never told me about it. So. There was a fallout. I felt betrayed by him, and I had trusted him, and trust isn't something I come by easy. So. It's ancient history now, though, and even though it doesn't... I am grateful to you. I'm glad to know he can't hurt anyone else, it's kind of a big deal. You should be ruling the world and here you are stuck in this hell hole with me."

"I can think of worse things, Mr. Stark," Shuri said softly, her heart aching for her friend.

"Really." He raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Certainly. I could be here without you Mr. Stark," she handed him back the block and tried to communicate with her eyes that she was sorry for the things he'd been through, that she was thankful to him and for him for many reasons.

Tony frowned and then his face relaxed and he sighed. "You kids will be the death of me."

"Kids? Plural?"

Tony glanced at the guards and frowned again, and Shuri could practically see his walls going up again. "Nevermind."

Tony turned and started working again. Shuri went back to her workstation but found it difficult to concentrate. For all her genius and understanding and education, she couldn't understand some people's need for secrecy and hiding the truth from people who deserved it. She could easily see parallels between what Steve Rogers had done in keeping the truth about Tony's parent's death and what her own father had done, keeping the truth about N'jadaka's father's death from... everyone. In both cases, the circumstances around the deaths-- that the Winter Soldier was brainwashed and that T'Chaka was saving Zuri's life-- would have perhaps earned them understanding, if not forgiveness. Both men seemed honorable but had made selfish choices that cost those around them-- dearly. She did not know if it stemmed from a place of not wanting to accept responsibility, or simply an inclination for secrecy or what. She could not understand it at all.

Lost in her thoughts, it took her a moment to realize that Tony had collapsed to one knee at his workstation. It wasn't until Imani and Siti were rushing toward him that she turned and saw something was wrong. At first, she thought Imani was trying to help Tony because he grabbed his arm as if to help him, but an instant later Imani was using his body's leverage to throw Tony the rest of the way to the floor and twisting his arm behind his back. She couldn't help but scream at Tony's rough treatment, but Tony was not resisting in the slightest. Shuri used all her strength to try and pull the bigger man off, but Siti raised a finger then pointed to the kimoyo beads. Shuri balled her hands in a fist, her head pounding with frustration.

"He's sick! You injured him, get off him!" She said, her voice shaking with anger and fear. "He's hurt. It's his chest! Let me help him!" Imani slowly stood, taking his knee off Tony's back. Tony struggled to push himself up but was clearly having difficulty. Shuri rushed over to him and helped him turn over onto his back.

"Mr. Stark, what are your symptoms?" He looked at her without comprehension, squeezing his eyes closed as if to clear his vision.

"It's the arc reactor," Tony said faintly. "They were messing with it. It's causing arrhythmias. It makes me weak..." Indeed his face had gone from pale to ashen, a sign that Shuri recognized as the heart failing to pump blood adequately.

Shuri spun around to face Imani. "I need to get him to your medical bay and treat this problem, or he will die!" She snapped. Imani looked at Siti, who frowned.

"He'll be fine, we'll take him back to his room."

"No he won't! He could die!"

"Perhaps. But Malice is not here to authorize it, and--"

"If you don't let me help him now, I won't do any more work at all! I swear to Bast, you'll have to kill me as well," she responded grimly.

Imani pursed his lips then rolled his eyes in acquiescence. "But you'll have to help him here. You can't be trusted around medical equipment, you'll just have to tell us what you need."

Shuri frowned but hurriedly pushed the equipment and papers off a nearby table. "Help me get him up here. Get blankets and a pillow!" Imani and another lab tech helped to lift Tony onto the table and he suppressed a groan at the movement. "It's okay, it's okay," she murmured, putting a hand on his arm. "Mr. Stark, please stay with me," she pleaded.

"Sure," he responded, his voice barely above a whisper. "I'm here. Not going anywhere."

She twisted her wrist to get a look at her beads. "Imani. I need my medical beads. You know they can do no harm." Imani looked stubborn, not about to assist her at that level of risk and she went to him. "Please," she said, imploring him with wide eyes filled with tears. She didn't even have to fake it. "Please, Imani, I will do anything you ask. I promise I will not do anything but help him, please. It's the ones with gray circles on them. There's two. I will be able to tell what's wrong and how to help him, but we must hurry!"

Imani again gestured to another guard to comply with her wishes, but he was watching her warily. "If it becomes an issue... I will kill him, Shuri," he said grimly. She nodded in understanding, swallowing hard. She looked to Siti for a hand as she lifted Tony's shirt but the woman shook her head in cold refusal. She did not care if Tony Stark died. Shuri struggled for a moment as Tony was too weak to help much, but then she saw the arc reactor.

She could smell that there was still a slight hit of the odor of burned metal; they had done something to the casing during his torture. The skin around it was irritated, red, inflamed. The arc reactor itself was... beautiful. The powerful blue light was flickering slightly. She could see a part of it was damaged, asymmetrical from the rest. Imani took the beads from the guard to had retrieved them, studying them carefully.

"This better not be a trick," he warned her, holding his fist out. "I will shoot him in the face if you do anything with those beads but treat him."

"I get it," she snapped. She quickly snapped the beads into place and scanned his chest, a heart rhythm appearing on the display as well as a holographic cardiogram. Shuri sucked in her breath, fascinated and worried in the same instant. Tony Stark's heart was... it was broken. Clearly and, perhaps, even beyond her power to fix. Her eyes scanned over the contents of the arc reactor. It was the most complex and incredible technology she'd ever seen, including her own. Even given her admiration and appreciation of Tony Stark's genius, it became suddenly clear to her that she'd perhaps underestimated him.

She turned to the lab tech and asked him to bring her certain tools. She told Imani to bring her a defibrillator, something that could deliver controlled electrical charges. Tony seemed conscious but kept his eyes closed, his weakened heart making it too difficult for him interact but he would mumble answers to her questions.

Shuri felt her skin tingle with the surge of anxiety, adrenaline, because as she contemplated the best way to fix the reactor and save Tony's life, another part of her brilliant mind thought she may have just realized a way for her to escape-- but it would definitely kill Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

Shuri hurriedly asked for specific medical and technological tools, conscripting Kofi to help her. Although the man was as sharp as a sack of wet mice he wasn't completely useless; he at least knew what she was asking for when she told him what he needed. Moving as fast as she could, she used the holographic projection she had created of the arc reactor and Tony's heart and created a simulation of what she wanted to do to fix the problem. Her hands trembled as she worked, a sick feeling of hope and fear warring within her.

She could escape if Tony Stark died.

That was the gist of it.

No matter how many times she tried a new approach to the problem or contemplated their few options, it did no good. She came to the same conclusion, again and again, as surely as typing in the same numbers on a calculator, the outcome never changed.

Her math was always right. It would be a risk, still; they had never seen anyone except Siti, Imani, Kofi and Malice. But that didn't mean there weren't other people around. It was a risk she had to take.

"Mr. Stark!" She rushed to his side where he had drifted off even on the hard, cold stainless steel table. She grabbed his hand and the contact awakened him, but his eyes were dull, uncomprehending, and his color was still terrible and his hand clumsily sought for his chest, the center of his pain. "If I adjust the isomorphic bilayer using an electronic convergence manifold, that will adjust the angle of bombardment and stop the interference of the arc reactor with your AV-node. Okay? All right, Mr. Stark, should I do that?" She felt sure of her math, but far less sure of her abilities with the arc reactor technology all but completely foreign to her. She thought she grasped the basic physics of it but this was his life she was messing with, no room for statistical error.

She could see him struggling to understand, but it was muscle memory to him; he understood the arc reactor science like he understood breathing. "No..." he murmured, confused. "Wait... the, the... isomorphic bilayer?"

"Yes," she said distinctly, wondering if he was too impaired because of his heart problems to understand what she was implying. But he had gone very still, his eyes clearing a bit.

"No, no, you would need a complex covalent bond, that type of alloy hasn't--" He tried to focus, the pain in his chest growing in intensity with each passing moment like someone pinching his chest, his heart, squeezing.

"I can do it," she said quietly, unable to keep from gripping his worn and callused hand tightly in her anxiety. "I have a way. I can do it, but there's a risk. Tell me if you don't want to take the risk."

"All right, kid," he said, staring hard at her face, a question in his eyes, a shadow of fear, a determination, a hope. "If you think you can." It would fix the problem with the reactor, if she could pull it off.

"I can do it, but listen..." She pulled up her holographic representation and tapped a piece of the casing. "If I also speed up the intrinsic sub-resonic variance here, there might be... there might be a protective and healing effect on your heart. The damaged tissue."

His face crumpled into confusion; what she was saying was deliberately obtuse, confusing the true objective, which was... to weaponize the arc reactor. Not as a repulsor blast; it didn't function that way, it was unlike his other arc reactors. If she had her way, it would be even more unlike them, not just a source of power, but a destructive and powerful weapon. If only he could see what she wanted to do--

Tony forced himself to a sitting position, staring hard at her design. He could not see what she saw, not yet; he hadn't been dealing with the Chutari/vibranium research the way she had. He shook his head. "Clever," he mumbled, knowing he didn't understand completely.

All he could see was a child, a brilliant and capable child, wanting his permission to alter the arc reactor for some unknown reason. It certainly wouldn't do what she had said; it wouldn't heal his heart. But he couldn't see what she was trying to do, or why.

Fresh off of three days of Malice's torment, where she had restrained him and against his will experimented with the arc reactor, its components, stealing its secrets by scanning and manipulating it, Tony's breath came fast at the very thought of allowing anyone access to modify the reactor beyond what was absolutely necessary to save his life. It was more than just a piece of tech or equipment, obviously; it was an integral and intricate part of him, it was his genius personified. It was the most powerful and vulnerable part of him, what made him most dangerous and most susceptible.

What... what did you do to me?

What I did is to save your life.

Oh, Tony. It's beautiful. It's your 9th Symphony. What a masterpiece. Look at that. It's your legacy.

He remembered the vibranium shield coming across his chest. A similar feeling, now, to that moment... a building pain as if being crushed, as if being tortured, as if his sacred strength had been sapped. A plaything, hopeless and helpless--

Forcefully, he dragged his muddled thoughts from their dark and murky bend. Shuri wasn't Steve Rogers or Obadiah Stane, or anyone but herself. He tried again to focus. Time was running out for them both.

It was clear to him that they were running out of options. He would never help Malice build weapons, and eventually she would kill him when she didn't get what she wanted or when he tried to escape. He couldn't leave Shuri to Malice's mercy, and he knew it, and Malice was much more careful than Raza or Killian (or anyone else who had held him captive) had been.

He had contemplated that he might die here.

Without saying goodbye to Pepper or Rhodey.

Without finishing his preparation for the bigger threat he felt looming, felt it in his bones, in his joints, in his sinews; he knew something was coming that he would have to face alone. He wasn't ready for it. He wasn't ready to die.

Is this to be the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark? He heard Yinsen's question echo in his mind, throbbing in his chest with each weakened and feeble beat of his heart.

He'd only known Shuri for a few weeks, maybe more than a month, he didn't know. But he already cared deeply for her and was willing to make whatever sacrifice to keep her safe. Whereas it had been a matter of principle at first, it was now a personal choice. He cared for the brilliant teenager like a daughter or a sister. She had shown him nothing but care and concern in their time together, and that ought to mean something. That ought to matter.

He laid back down, trying to think through the haze of his failing heart. He didn't know. He didn't know if he had it in him. To trust again. His entire life experience screamed at him to not allow it, told him he'd be better off dead rather than gamble his faith, his hope, his trust like that again.

Peter hadn't let him down.

Damn that kid. Both of them.

"I sure hope you know what you're doing, princess," he told her, locking eyes. She nodded to reassure him, her throat tightening around a lump. She knew his trust was not easily given, and she prayed to Bast she would not let him down.

...

She'd saved people before. It was a nice feeling; the best. Grasping death by the hand and making it release its victim; using her skill, using her intellect, using vibranium, she had stopped death before. She had pondered in an abstracted way that she might have some degree of culpability on the opposite side of the coin. Her technology that she developed and that only existed because she did could certainly take life as well as give it, but she trusted her brother, she trusted the warriors. They would never kill another being wanton, never without real reason.

Certainly, she had a real reason. Because she would not be able to stop Malice from achieving her goal much longer.

She understood, of course, that life had been lost before, directly and indirectly because of her work, but she felt far removed from it. Even when it had come to Killmonger and those aiding him, directly contributing to their demise had not seemed something she could consider herself responsible for. It was self-defense, she had no other choice. She told herself over and over again, like a mantra, that this was the same; these people were trying to harm her, would kill her and Tony Stark, would kill others without discretion. Still. She'd never planned to harm someone before. She'd never tried to stop someone by killing them before. She felt a weakness in her knees, a tightness in her throat and chest as she skillfully fixed the arc reactor and made the modifications she knew, she knew, she knew would end lives, including Tony Stark's.

Once Siti and Imani had okayed Shuri to save Tony, they were doing what she asked without challenge although Siti was watching her closely for any sign of subterfuge. Luckily for her, the things she asked for were broken down into their basic elements, so she didn't have to overtly ask for Chitari tech, just a piece, just enough to accomplish her goal. Shuri forced herself to hurry before Kofi or one of the other techs understood in any way what she was attempting, before Malice got back, before she could lose her nerve. She wasted no movement and everything came together... perfectly.

This was happening. Her heart was beating so painfully fast and hard she could see it's movement under her shirt. In a moment it would all be over.

"It will be all right, Mr. Stark," she told him, grabbing his hand. "I will save you. I have a plan." And he opened his eyes to look at her, his gaze full of pain and fear and disquiet, the disconnected glaze of his badly palpitating heart. She only has a moment to wonder if he would really agree to the plan if he knew what it was before her grip tightening over his hand as the arc reactor overloaded, sending a burst of Chitauri-based tech through the vibranium enhanced bilayer, when the element in the arc reactor met with that combination--

Nothing but white, then blackness as utter darkness fell.

...

The arc reactor hybrid weapon power source was entirely theoretical, with lots of unknowns regarding its effects, so not being able to hear was a surprise to her; the first of many surprises. The darkness, she'd anticipated. She'd figured overloading the arc reactor would knock out the power, and, also as she had anticipated, the arc reactor's light flickered back to life a moment later, a beacon in the darkness. The energy wave had not moved any inanimate objects, despite its power. It only affected electric potentials such as in technology and living bodies. It killed without leaving a mark, without the slightest injury. It passed easily through any barrier except vibranium, Malice's perfect weapon she's been working on for endless days, realized in the moments of adrenaline-fueled fear, not to take life but to save it.

Shuri had avoided the pulse of energy herself by taking the simple precaution of ducking under the table, allowing Tony's body to absorb the brunt of the blast, the vibranium she'd placed in the ar reactor acting almost like a lightning rod, absorbing the energy without any damage. Even so, Tony had certainly been affected and she'd received a small dose of it herself, and her entire body ached, feeling sluggish and numb, tingling. It had likely knocked out power to anything within a few miles unless it was completely shielded by vibranium. Disoriented as if she'd received a blow to the head or been woken up from a deep, sedated sleep, she struggled against the blurry vision and ringing in her ears, as well as the dull pain throughout her body.

"Mr. Stark... Mr. Stark!"

But calling for him was an automatic response; she knew he wouldn't respond. Flicking her wrist to make her kimoyo beads light up she scanned the room. Siti, Imani, the other, nameless guards, the lab techs... they were dead. She knew that with very little effort she could revive them, and she also knew she wouldn't do it. A sob tore through her as young and tender heart broke. She had taken life. Although it was probably due to Stockholm syndrome to some degree, she felt a terrible pity, a terrible grief as she knew that they were not only cruel and evil. At times they had been almost kind to her. Even if they hadn't been... it was against her nature to rejoice in death, and she could not bear to look at the bodies.

She focused on Tony, on bringing him back. She'd basically repolarized every cell in his body; a hard reset in electronic terms, and while she felt reasonably confident that she could fix this it was definitely, without question, absolutely theoretical and she'd only had two and a half minutes to calculate it all. Still, she felt certain--

The light of the arc reactor was different now; the Chutari energy signature and vibranium alloy that had integrated with the Stark Element and it had gone from a brilliant blue to an almost silver-white-- it was so beautiful, so blindingly powerful that she had to look away, grabbing his shirt off the floor just to try and dim the light. He'll need a new casing cover unless he wants to be a walking searchlight, she thought, half hysterical.

At the moment, though, it was the only light in the otherwise pitch black room. Fumbling with her kimoyo beads, which she had shielded from the blast, she twisted the medical beads into position until they glowed with a soft purple light. Though dim in appearance compared to the light of the arc reactor, as it scanned over his body at the frequency meant to "restart" Tony's body as it were. It was like lightning to Frankenstein's monster, and it should be fine, should be fine--

She didn't register how terrified she was until he took a gasping breath, stirring weakly, and her kimoyo bead display flittered to life with his stabilizing vital signs, his heart rhythm strong and steady now. Brushing at the tears that started streaming down her face, she reached to steady Tony as he sat up, stunned and bewildered. The dark lab was cast into a harsh relief by the glow of his arc reactor and he carefully climbed off the table, stunned at the darkness and death that around them. "Shuri... what did you do?"

"I had this plan."

"Was this part of it?"

"Yes."

"And me dying?"

"Yes."

"Um. Okay." She supported him as he stood, surveying the damage, still reeling, unsteady. He pulled on his shirt and the sweatshirt, shivering a little in the cold and dark lab.

"How are you feeling?" She asked tentatively, almost not wanting to know.

"I feel like I got hit by an R36 missile."

"Umm... have you been to Russia lately?"

"No, not recently. But I never forget a bruise. I can barely walk, were you expecting me to be this weak?"

"I didn't think about it, but yeah, it might take a while for you to regain your strength. The subresonate variation may have impacted the cellular respiration cycle, Mr. Stark."

"Ah. Well, it hurts like hell, if you're going to write a paper about it."

She anxiously looked him over, knowing that there was no way to predict what the long-term effects would be on him. She could only hope and pray to Bast she'd done the right thing. He was certainly in better shape than he had been a few minutes ago; the arc reactor seemed to be functioning well. He was clearly shakey, unsteady. She would need better medical equipment, recalibrated to check within certain parameters, to be sure that he was all right. It would help if they could get out of here.

"We might not have much time," she said fretfully, still trying to calm her racing heart. "Shit!" She exclaimed a moment later as she glanced at her kimoyo beads.

"Language," Tony replied without missing a beat. "What's the problem?"

"My kimoyo beads. Malice put a tracker in it. The vibranium shielded it, and the sonic taser."

"Right." Tony straightened, a calculating look on his face. "Okay." His face crumpled into a painful wince and his hand went to his chest. it didn't hurt, exactly; whatever she'd done created a powerful sensation, though; created something not exactly pleasant. It had given him a terrible flashback to a moment not long after he'd first awoken in the face in Afghanistan. The casing on the electromagnet powered by the car battery had often electrocuted him painfully, at first, if he moved wrong.

"What?" Shuri had her hand on his shoulder, concerned. "Pain?"

"Nothing, kid, just my past coming back to haunt me, it does it all the time. We don't have a lot of time to discuss it, let's get that thing off you."

"It will activate the sonic taser," she reminded him. "That would knock me out for fifteen minutes!"

Tony paused. "Okay, you were right-- shit. Give me... give me a second to think." He staggered over to one of the tables, gripping the edge of the table and rubbing his chin in concentration. "Okay. There's got to be some way of getting it off without incapacitating you. Let me see." She held up her wrist and he took it, examining it in the light of the arc reactor.

"There are tiny vibranium-based microchips in here. If the sonic taser is activated when the bracelet is being removed, it's probably based on skin contact, here." She pointed to the spot she spoke of, looking to his face for understanding and confirmation.

"Right. That's cute. Is there any tech in here not completely fried?" She shook her head. "All right. I'll just... interrupt the signal. Yeah. Okay, yeah, I can do this. See here? I just need..." he looked around the lab, and stepping over Siti's body, spilling out the supplies from Kofi's workstation. He grabbed up a spool of copper wiring. He sat down and started working with it, his fingers quick and sure. Yet she could tell he was injured, either from before or as a result of the power surge.

"Mr. Stark, are you all right?"

"Shh. Hang on a sec," he replied distractedly and pulled her wrist toward him, examining the beads again. "Does the vibranium allow for convergent dysgenesis?"

"Only in the presence of an increased micro-scale cascade," she replied quickly, seeing his line of thinking. "But that will be dangerous to us both! You'd only have one shot at it--"

For some reason, he laughed, and the intolerable tension in his shoulders released. "'Relax. I've got steady hands.'" She could tell he was quoting something but was oblivious to the reference. She bit her lip as he held her wrist, keeping it as still as he could while he applied his copper contraption. A zap of electricity startled her and bit deeply across her wrist and she bit back a cry of pain and alarm.

"Sorry! Sorry, geez... are you all right? I'm so sorry, kid. Does it hurt?"

"N-no, it just surprised me. Can I take it off?"

"I'm afraid not. There's no possible way to completely deactivating the sonic taser. The vibranium protected it from the blast, but by initiating the dysgenesis from the microcascade... it should create a hard restart on the tracker. She may be able to remotely reactivate it, but... you needed some time. I bought you some time, at least."

"How long?"

"Hopefully a couple of hours, but it all depends on when she tries to access it, how far away we are by then, if she has the right person to do it for her... lots of things. We can only guess. Could be more, could be less time."

"We'd better hurry," she replied shakily, because knowing that they only two hours to put between them and Malice's wrath was a frightening prospect, and that was only if she wasn't able to find them some other way, if they made it out at all.

Both of them started for the door and Shuri jerked it open, thankful that the power to the door locks had been fried, at least to this room. Tony wasn't behind her and she turned, and he was standing over the bodies of the fallen guards and lab workers. He checked their pulses, his face a mask of non-expression, as well as taking weapons off them. Shuri did a mental facepalm. Of course they should arm themselves.

Tony limped toward her, still weak. "Okay, kid. Have you fired a gun before? Shuri!" She was staring at the gun and his urgent voice brought her back to reality. Overloading the arc reactor to save their lives so they could escape had been bad enough; the idea of pointing a gun at someone and shooting them was a terrifying prospect. Tony shook his head. "Don't worry or think about it. All right? I'll be right here, I'm going to try to look after you but Malice isn't messing around. She's not going to want us to escape alive, do you understand?" She nodded jerkily. He showed her how to disable the safety and how to shoot the handgun.

"Primitive," she noted shakily, reengaging the safety, and he gave her a wry, encouraging smile. "Mr. Stark, if we find my other beads, we can send for help."

"We'll keep an eye out, but our first priority is to get away from here. Let's go. Stay behind me, do exactly what I say, all right?" She agreed.

Tony kept her behind him, providing the only light with his arc reactor and shielding her from any unexpected thugs. He cleared the hallways and stairwells before he would let her proceed, his gun at the ready. Apparently, the building was on its own electrical source, off-grid, which explained why FRIDAY and the Wakandans hadn't been able to find them. The good news was that power was knocked out to the entire building, the generators for the building had to have been somewhere in proximity to the lab, probably on the same level. The bad news was they were deep underground, and it was somewhat slow going taking the stairs. He stopped at each floor, looking for an exit and for her kimoyo beads.

After a few floors, he slumped against the wall. "I don't think I can go on," he said. "My body... I can't make my body work. If I had a suit... I'm slowing you down kid. Get out of here and find some help." He slid to the ground, breathing hard, frustration and pain flinching through his expression.

Shuri knelt down. "Mr. Stark, I won't leave you," she told him, her face set and determined. He didn't interrupt, looking up at her, judging her resolve. "One, I didn't get us this far for Malice to murder you in the stairwell. Two, I'm very interested in the tech we created and I want to study it more. We can't let Malice have access to it, in any case. And three... Mr. Stark, there's a tracker on me. I'm afraid. I need you. Please, whatever we do... let's do it together."

Tears came to his eyes and he blinked them away, but there came a sharp and painful lump in his throat he found he could not speak around. He nodded, staving off a building worry of guilt that she would still be killed because of him, but he knew she was right. They would have to finish this together. She pulled him to standing and put his arm over her shoulders to help support his weight.

"The medical bay should be nearby. It didn't take them that long to leave and come back with supplies." Shur said thoughtfully.

"Good thinking. There might be supplies there to use, but we'd better be quick."

They came to the next level and Tony listened at the door before extricating himself from Shuri's support so he could hold the gun to clear the room. Gun raised, he opened the door and stepped through. Shuri was a moment behind him and only had a moment for a short scream of surprise and fear as a large man brought his gun down on Tony's head, knocking him to the ground.

In the next instant, Tony, on instinct, turned and fired, shooting the man center mass just as he brought his gun around to fire at Tony. The man fired wildly as he was hit, in the same instant that Shuri felt a blow to her leg and fell to the ground. Tony had kicked her, her knee stabbing with sudden pain at the insult as she fell to the ground, dropping her own gun, but her movement caused the bullet that would have hit her chest or face instead only grazing her left arm. She felt the pressure of it, as if she'd been hit by T'Challa wearing the Black Panther suit. She looked in wonder at the blood dripping down her arm; it didn't seem to hurt at all, yet it had torn through muscle and was sure to hurt, it was supposed to hurt--

Dazed from the shock and fear of being shot, she sat down, her head spinning. She heard the gun go off again as Tony shot the man again when he started to move; he didn't move again. Tony crawled over to her, fear in his face like she'd never seen even when he looked like he was dying. "I'm okay," she mumbled, her lips not seeming to work right.

"You're feeling the effects of shock at the moment," he told her. "Just hang on, try not to pass out on me, okay? Shuri. Hey, kid, you with me?"

"Yes."

He had clamped his hand over the gushing wound to put pressure on the bleeding and that-- that hurt. She couldn't help but whimper as her entire arm felt as if it were on fire.

"I know," he said soothingly, apologetically, but didn't let up pressure, looking around for something to absorb the blood and use as a tourniquet. He took her hand and placed it over the wound. "Press here," he told her clearly. "Just for a second, okay, I know it hurts but I want you to push as hard as you can."

She nodded jerkily. He went to the dead man and patted him down, finding a pocket knife and another gun for his efforts. He cut the sleeve off the man's jacket and came over to her, inspecting the wound and wiping up some of the blood before wrapping then tying the sleeve around her wound. He looked into her frightened and pain-filled eyes and couldn't help but comfort her, stroking her head. "We're quite a pair. It's going to be okay, Shuri. It's okay. Come on, I've got you, you're all right." Though weak and in pain himself, he helped her rise to her feet and she kept his hand when he went to move away. He glanced down then up at her, worried. She didn't say anything and he relented, grasping her hand, remembering for all her brilliance and maturity, she was after all a child.

"Medical bay," he reminded her, eyeing her wound. She nodded her understanding and willingness to go on.

Precious time passed as the two injured escapees made their way through the pitch black building. Tony had seen buildings like it built by Hydra; most of the levels were underground, with only a small, nondescript above level building to dispel suspicion. This was not as large, but at least five stories so far underground. The other floors remained a mystery, as far as their use; in the darkness and in their hurry they did not explore them except to make sure there was no exit or bad guys. It seemed like an eternity, but after only about ten minutes they had some well deserved good luck and found the med bay. Tony used a pry bar to open the sliding doors which wouldn't open with the power out. There were no more guards or Malice's toadies, probably because it was the middle of the night.

After his wrestle with the doors, Tony sat heavily in one of the chairs, out of breath and shaking with straining his weakened body. Shuri quickly went around the room, grabbing medical supplies while looking for some way to carry them. As well stocked as the area was, she was able to find lots of things they could use, including some bottled water. She packed their found weapons into the bag, except for Tony's and one for herself. Slinging the bag on her back she went to Tony, who was leaning against the table, his eyes closed. "Do you need to rest longer?"

"We can't. Help... help me up. We're probably close to ground level now." She tried not to be afraid at how weak he felt, about how difficult it was for him to move. She herself felt dizzy from the pain in her arm and though Tony had quickly staunched the blood loss, she wasn't exactly in peak physical condition either given her long captivity and the blood loss. They were in a precarious situation, and they both knew it.

They found their way to an exit and after watching it carefully a while to make sure it was unguarded, they stepped outside into the pitch black of night.

Chapter Text

Shuri felt the warm-then-cold, sticky itch of blood dripping down her arm. In the darkness it was hard to tell how bad the bleeding was; enough to soak through the makeshift bandage/tourniquet, but not so bad she felt compelled to stop. It had started bleeding when she fell, tripping hard over some hard object she couldn't see by moonlight, adding insult to injury by stubbing her toe badly; it took effort not to limp. She and Tony were wearing the flimsy slip-on shoes that she'd eventually talked Malice into providing. Her feet had started hurting long ago, but it was nothing compared to the pain in her arm and was mostly lost in it. Her arm ached and burned and stung, and she was hurting and tired.

She longed for her mother, so suddenly and all at once that she couldn't breathe. She wanted T'Challa; his warm strength, kindness, protection. She wanted Okoye, she wanted her family, she'd even settle for Everette Ross, but they were not here. She was on her own, she didn't know where, she did not know how to get help. They needed to find shelter, they needed medical attention. Tony stumbled again; she could feel his strength ebbing as he leaned on her more and more.

She thought he might die. She may have miscalculated the effects of the energy pulse's side effects. She hadn't had the time, the simulations, the diagnostics. She'd had to just try. Now, with a sob, she contemplated the possibility that, not only had she done something that would lead to the death of Tony Stark, she had also accidentally done the very thing Malice had been trying to force her to do all along. A weapon, unimaginable in its power, that could go through any barrier not vibranium, killing all life and technology that could stop it. The vibranium in the arc reactor's casing had protected Tony, somewhat; if he would survive a second blast, she couldn't say, but she doubted it.

"It was too easy," Tony had mumbled a couple of mile's back, arriving at a conclusion before she'd ever thought of it. Now she couldn't get it out of her mind. She felt more and more certain that it was a set up-- Malice had injured Tony, knowing she would react the way she did, knowing she would build the weapon, she had been blind, she should have thought of something else, the power pulse would make Malice all but unstoppable. They were tracking them right now, they would use the sonic taser any moment, Sitit and Imani weren't really dead and they were coming for her, to kill her, to use her against her brother because they had what they needed--

"Shuri," Tony said, slowing down then stopping, looking her over. "Kid, I can feel you freaking out. All right? We can't panic. We'll find a way to hide. Get help." He could hardly breathe.

"It's not that," she said in a strangled voice. "I'm afraid I've harmed you very much, and created the very weapon we tried so hard not to make. They're going to find us. I won't be able to stop them." Her voice sounded somewhat hysterical. "I've been shot!" She reminded him needlessly, as he was already checking her wound.

"I know," he said soothingly. "I know that hurts. Let's stop a minute. Maybe it was a setup, but I think it's safe to assume that if they knew we were going to be able to escape, there would have been more resistance when we left. Malice wouldn't have let the weapon out of her hands if she had any say in it, okay? So I'm sure Siti and Imani were meant to survive, and they didn't, okay? You've given us a chance, so we don't need to waste it panicking. Right?"

"Right."

"And I've been worse off. All right?" He reassured her, his hand on her shoulder. "It's rough, not gonna lie, but... two of the smartest people on the planet. We got this. We're smarter than her."

A thousand thoughts ran through her mind, and part of her felt encouraged, but another part of her shrank. She had acted, and those actions had consequences she hadn't intended. She felt a sliver of fear at the idea of trying to out-think anyone at the moment. "I'm cold," was all she could respond, feeling like the child she was, pushed already beyond the limits of her endurance. The night was cool, but she was drenched in sweat from running so hard, and the effects of the pulse, though muted, had weakened her too. She shivered.

In response he pulled off his sweatshirt and when she protested he only looked at her sadly, with pity, with compassion. "I hate feeling cold, too." He remembered after Yinsen performed surgery on him in the cold cave, the iciness of the reactor, how badly it hurt to move, to breathe, and the cold seemed to seep into his chest and never, never leave. He remembered the cold of Siberia, how, while he waited for rescue he tried to fix the suit, tried to keep his hands warm because he didn't want to lose his fingers to frostbite, he didn't want to lose his fingers. He also knew her chill was not only physical; the warmth she needed he couldn't provide, that of safety and home and family. The sweatshirt was a poor substitute, but it was what he had.

What impulse he followed by giving her the sweatshirt because he hated being cold so much himself Shuri couldn't examine too closely; it hurt her heart, and she just couldn't bear any more pain at the moment. She allowed him to help ease the sweatshirt on, avoiding putting her injured arm through the sleeve-- it was too painful. Leaning against each other against the cold and dark, they took a moment to look around for shelter. "Rest here a minute. I'm going to go up that hill and see if there's a likely place for us to camp out. We might need to keep going and sleep during the day. Drink some water, but go easy."

"I should go! It should be me. You can rest."

"I have the light," he reminded her. "Don't worry, it will only take a minute. Take one of the guns and be ready to use it, just in case. Don't shoot me, please, but do shoot anyone else."

Shuri watched him walk away until she could no longer see him as he covered the light on his chest. She did as he asked and got the gun out, removing the safety and then sitting on the ground by a tree, resting her chin on her knees. Tiredness and pain warred for the most prevalent discomfort as she strained for any footsteps or other sounds. The place they had been kept prisoner was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. She wondered if they were still in California-- Oakland seemed years and thousands of miles away. Certainly, the area they were in was deep in some wilderness; there were no signs of any civilization or people, and they were just as likely to die, lost in the wilderness, as they were to die by the hands of their captors. Shuri shivered uncontrollably.

It seemed like an eternity until Tony came back. "Come on," he said, coaxingly, and she could only ponder fleetingly about his ability to remain kind and considerate despite everything as helped her to her feet. "There's a rock formation over there. Might give us some shelter and the high ground should give us some warning if we get visitors."

"Maybe we should keep running," she suggested fretfully. "You said go through the night."

"Shuri... kid, I... I'm sorry. I can't. Full disclosure, I'm not even sure how I'm going to get there. I have to... figure out a way to get that tracker off you... get you to safety."

Shuri brushed away her tears and leaned into Tony. "Mr. Stark... it's like that movie. I'll be Samwise. You be Frodo," she said through sniffles. She didn't think of Tony like a father, exactly; but she wondered if this would be how she could have felt about N'Jabu in another lifetime, another universe, where her uncle was her family instead of the embodiment of her father's guilt and pain.

"I'm not that far gone, am I? I can definitely remember what sunlight feels like."

"Can you? You're the whitest man I've ever met, and that's saying something because I know Everette Ross." Her heart squeezed tightly around the memory of teasing T'Challa in a similar fashion.

"Hey! Not my fault I haven't seen natural light in the better part of a month or more." Tony was pasty white from the lack of sunlight and his constant injuries. He was also shaggy-haired, floppy curls appearing in his once meticulously trimmed hair. His perfectly groomed facial hair had also morphed into a full beard, though it was not very thick even given a month to grow. He would certainly be unrecognizable from his counterpart on the news and in magazines.

"Now all I can picture is you carrying me bridal style, but I'm not sure you have the back to carry me." His words had a teasing tone but she could hear the underlying exhaustion and tension from pain.

"Lean on me and I'll do my best, Master Frodo," she said, affecting a terrible accent. Strangely his weakness created a desire in her to be the strong one. She didn't feel strong; she felt sad and scared more than anything. But when Tony gave a weak, huffing laugh, she did feel better.

They made their way slowly now, trying to take more care to not be as obvious where they were heading. If anyone searched for them in daylight, it would likely not be hard to find them, but they had little choice.

"Where are we I wonder," Shuri said, trying to examine the landscape with the limited lighting. Tony was holding the backpack against his chest to hide the arc reactor's light, so only the bright moon and stars let them see their way. All she could really see was that they were in the wilderness, perhaps somewhere up in hills or even mountains; with rugged terrain, spares trees, large rocks, and nothing man-made anywhere, not even a path.

"I think we're still in California. Lots of federal lands... that building where we were kept had an old military installation vibe, or maybe something from SHIELD back in the day. Easy to hide it in the wilderness. But yeah, I think California. Weather would be right. Some of the flora looks right. Stars would be right."

"How do you know this stuff?"

"Picked it up," he said distractedly as they entered the maze of rocks, not wanting to go into the details of how he'd been consumed with learning survival skills post-Afghanistan, haunted by his time wandering in the desert when he'd survived only by the miracle that Rhodey had managed to find him in time. "We need to watch for snakes and things. Careful of your step here." He moved away from her, stepping ahead as the way narrowed.

Once they were shielded somewhat by the rock formation, Tony moved the backpack to allow them to see more clearly by the light of the reactor. He looked down at it, examining it closely for the first time. She thought he might ask her more about it, but he was silent, and she finally noticed he was shaking with exertion, stumbling and catching himself against the rocks, which were about shoulder high in some places, some places over their heads. "This is good. Defensible. But they'll know to look for us here," he said faintly.

They came to an area mostly enclosed on three sides with rocks. Tony practically collapsed, using the rocks to help ease himself down, but was holding his hand out toward her. "Arm."

"Mr. Stark, I'm sure it's--"

"No. Arguing."

She complied, as much to keep him from getting upset as anything; she was afraid he would pass out and she would not know what to do. He removed the bandage and she did her best not to flinch away, though she couldn't keep from hissing in pain. He sighed, rubbing his face, then rifled through the medical bag. "It needs stitched. Okay. All right. Here's what we're going to do. I'm going activate the sonic taser in your bracelet. I'm going to get rid of the tracking device, then I'm going to stitch you up while you're still out of it. We both have to try and get some rest. Drink this water for me, and here's some ibuprofen, it's the best we got."

She looked at him tremulously but steeled herself, nodding. "Okay."

His face crumpled briefly, pained by her bravery, his hand tightening around her arm ever so slightly. "I'm gonna get you back to your mom and brother. Do you think we can use these to get a message to them?"

"If we can modify the tracker with what we have with us," she said doubtfully. "If only we could have gotten the rest of my beads, I could heal this injury and call my brother, but--" She shrugged and shook her head, her brow furrowed. Dirt and smeared blood on her face made her look even more pitiful and young somehow, and Tony's chest squeezed with sympathetic pain.

"First things," he said faintly as she took a drink of the water. "Let's get you straightened out. There's a blanket, go ahead and put it under you I'll see about making a small fire to keep us warm." He smiled his encouragement as she complied. "At least it won't hurt much, kiddo."

All she could do was nod as he pulled out the small tools he taken from the lab. He took her wrist, squeezing it reassuringly, then took two of the beads and pulled them apart, activating the sonic taser and Shuri felt a jolt, then nothing at all.

...

Tony watched as Shuri jolted, then went unconscious. Hot and bitter guilt and something like grief, like anger, like anxiety stabbed through him; he hated to see her like that. He worked on the beads; fascinating as they were, they were annoying as hell to manipulate given their small size, the strength of the vibranium, and the fact that his hands were weak and shaking. Fortunately, they were incredibly intuitive, incredibly advanced, and though he'd never seen anything like them, he could grasp the concept. It was almost a bit like tiny arc reactors themselves, although they were using a different type of modality to achieve an electrostatic potential. The vibranium's unique properties must have made it capable to a bombardment of gamma radiation that would normally create a conductive heat too powerful to contain; it would cook anything within a hundred feet of it normally, but the small bead was cool in his hand.

He detached the tracking device with a quick huff of exhaled air; he felt as if he'd just diffused a bomb. Luckily, the sonic taser was easy enough to destroy now that it was no longer on her wrist. He stared at the small filaments that created the taser. A thousand lifetimes ago, he'd pitched it as an alternative to the weapons he'd been creating for the military, disturbed by their destructive and indiscriminate power. The government had been in the market for non-lethal means of incapacitation at the time, but Stane of course had been overtly interested and had SI R&D perfect the tech. He crushed the pieces in his hand.

He never would escape Obadiah. He was inching closer to the age Obie had been when he died. It felt ominous.

He ran his fingers across the arc reactor, his entire chest tender as if he'd taken a blow from Thor's hammer. What did you do to me?

What I did was to save your life.

Saved it for what, was still a good question. Was he still a man who had everything-- and nothing? He had it all, not that long ago, and lost it. What did that make him now? He gazed down at Shuri, thinking of Peter, thinking of all the things he still had to lose. When he saw her, thought of Peter, he thought of what might be, in some deep quiet part of his soul behind a thousand walls stronger than vibranium-- an unsought for hope for the future. If he could just get them there, these kids, if he could just get them there, that would be something. That wouldn't be a waste, he wouldn't be a waste.

There was no way of knowing what Shuri's little experiment had done to his body. The reactor was fundamentally altered and he had no FRIDAY to run diagnostics. It was far more powerful than anything he'd created, but he could tell something wasn't right, something lingering and deep and cellular that went to his bones and his joints and sinews. The low thrum of its power reverberated through his chest. As long as it kept him alive long enough to get the kid to her people, that's all he needed, just give him time--

Forestalling on the fire, he took her arm, gently, even though she couldn't feel it and the care was unwarranted, he thought she deserved some gentleness. He hated to think of a scar; hated to think of the risk of infection; hated pushing and pulling the curved needle through her muscle, her skin, hated the smell of blood, hated the boiling nausea in his stomach, hated the visual of the wound awakening old memories of other wounds in other times, other people, he hated everything--

He hated everything.

He pulled the last stitch tight, cleaned the blood off, and wrapped it with the only gauze in the bag. The edges of his vision turned grey. The pull of unconsciousness tugged at him, insistent, powerful. He was sinking until it felt like he was floating, a sickening vertigo, of unbalance. His mind fixated on the idea of a fire; it was somehow the most important thing, it was vital, their lives depended on it but he could not fathom in any way what it would take to build it; it was merely a thought, caught in a terrible echo chamber and he forgot all other worries and all other concerns. The fire. He needed the fire.

His body could no longer stave off unconsciousness, and the need to start the fire warped into a troubled nightmare. Pepper was on fire, then Peter, then Shuri. He set the weapons on fire, he was the weapons; he was the fire. It was too hot, it was too bright. It consumed him; the fire, the arc reactor. He harmed him, it was him. He enlightened, he destroyed. He warmed, he turned to ash and smoke. In him was life and in him was burning--

...

When she woke, it was cold. The sky had just begun to lighten; stars still shone brightly in the sky, but their light was dimming as a greater light began, black fading to an in-between grey of approaching dawn.

The quiet and cold scared her a bit; it took her mind a moment to catch up with why. Her arm ached and burned painfully, her muscles and skin still adapting to the violence they'd been subjected to. Her pain reminded her of Tony's flagging strength yesterday and she quickly looked around for him. The moment she saw Tony Stark, she realized he must be dead. He was laying a few feet from her on the cold ground, on his side but turned toward her. He was too pale, too gray, he wasn't moving. She grabbed his arm, his skin ice cold as if he'd been dead for hours but then he was moving under her terrified grasp and no he wasn't dead, he had been asleep, something like asleep, deeper but less restful.

"Mr. Stark!" She said her voice choked and sad, she'd been so afraid.

"Shuri!" He sat up painfully, groggy, his words garbled. He came toward her, shaking his head as if to clear his vision. "I'm sorry kid you must be freezing! How's your arm? Let me see it." But she crumpled against him, a child afraid of nightmares and storms and bad guys. She was so hungry and thirsty, so tired, her arm hurt so much and she missed her mom and brother and she wished her dad were there to save her. The past day of her daring risk with Tony and the arc reactor, getting shot, escaping, having the sonic taser used on her, all of it seemed to crash down on her and for the first time since she'd been captured, she allowed herself to wholly give in to her tears. Within moments, she was a wet, sobbing mess. She couldn't think or feel anything at all except the increased pain and pressure of releasing all of her pent-up emotions, but for as violent as it was, it did not last long. Like a microburst of a storm, it came powerfully and dramatically but could not stay.

Tony held her, his face compassionate, pained. He understood too well. He patted her back as she finished crying. "I thought you were dead after all," she admitted.

He winced in sympathy. "I'm still here."

"Mr. Stark?"

"What is it?"

"How... how are we going to survive? Surely Malice will find us before we get help. What will we do?"

"The only way we will survive is by doing what we've been doing all along. We save each other."

"Yeah."

"Right?"

"Right. We'll save each other." She gave a soft laugh. For some reason, their conversation had reminded her of a time that seemed years or decades ago. "Mr. Stark. I have to tell you something. I'm afraid I've kept a secret from you, I've been meaning to tell you."

A furrow appeared on his brow, a pensive look filled with a guarded unhappiness. She could see his shoulders pull tight with tension. "What's up?"

"I wanted you to know that... I'm Aja."

He looked at her in confusion. "Who's Aja?"

"You know. The um... I'm that person from Wakanda that bypassed your firewall?"

Tony blinked, incredulous. "I'd almost forgotten that! Of course it was you." He laughed, a genuine laugh, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "I thought you were probably some kind of spy!"

"You still helped me even though you thought I was a spy?"

"I wasn't worried. FRIDAY is pretty tough. I don't think there's anyone who can get past her, and if you did I keep my most important projects completely offline. Couldn't make them any more secure aside from putting it all on paper and handcuffing a briefcase to my wrist."

"Does FRIDAY assist in your projects?"

"If I ask her to," he said, and she caught a note in his voice, she couldn't identify what. "I used to have an AI for that... FRIDAY is more like a watchdog/ bodyguard. Keeps me as safe as she can. Protections, mostly, poor girl has a hard job, doomed to failure." He was shaking with cold, shaking with what his body had been put through. In the dim morning light, shadowed by the rocks, she couldn't see him clearly but knew that whatever was wrong with him had not gotten entirely better by their night exposed to the elements.

"So you're Aja, my little friend from Wakanda. Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"I didn't want Malice to know there was any history between us, since she was using us against each other as it was. It probably wouldn't have mattered."

"No, that's good thinking." He seemed to think of something and pulled their bag of supplies toward him. He pulled out her kimoyo beads. "Taser and tracker free. Can't vouch that they didn't give Malice a heads up on where we are before I disabled it, though. We should probably try to get going."

"Or we stay here," she suggested. "This would be a difficult place to attack. We could rest. Try to get stronger. Figure out a way to contact our people. We could... we could make a small fire. Warm us up." He hesitated, but she had a feeling that he couldn't have traveled far had he wanted to.

"Okay. Don't go far, but see if you can collect some firewood. You'll need something to act as kindling, and the driest wood you can find."

"Are there matches?"

"No, but I'll figure something out."

When she'd come back with what she could find, she watched him use the knife he'd taken off the man who'd shot her to shave the wood into fine pieces for kindling, then take a piece of gauze from the medical bag and then fished out a small container of vaseline.

"What's that?" Shuri asked, the product not available in Wakanda.

"It's petroleum jelly. It's used in some medical procedures and makes good chapstick. You have chapstick in Wakanda?"

"Yes of course but we don't use petroleum that's gross. We use natural herbs."

"Good for you. Luckily your terroristic counterparts were corrupted by the American medical complex. My guess is they were using it to clean up an oil-based mess, maybe as a lubricant... or maybe Malice used it to remove her makeup, I have no idea."

"Now we just need... a spark."

"The arc reactor?"

"Possibly, possibly, but it'd be like watering the flowers with a firehose. Access and control are difficult. What about your beads?"

She pondered. "What if... I modify the frequency and attune it to the arc reactor's gamma radiation signature? I have that info saved from my medical scans."

"Essentially acting as a voltage-gated channel," he nodded. "Given the selective permeability of the action potential, that should... it might work."

Between the two geniuses, they managed to get a fire going, with no matches and no sunlight to aid them. It was a pleasant success after a night of fear and cold. "We keep saving each other," she said with a grin. He returned it.

"We keep saving each other."

"What now?"

"Warm up. No food in here, but a bit of water. We could ration it... but you lost blood yesterday, so drink up. Can those fancy beads help us find food or water?"

"Only if my brother brings it with him."

"Will you be able to contact him?"

"I can't at the moment, but I will have to see if I can modify them."

"Okay then, that will be your job. Get a message in a bottle for us. Worst-case scenario, we're going to have to leave here to find help and be vulnerable to Malice. I think it's safe to assume there's at least a good possibility we're headed for a showdown with her, so... I guess I'm weapons."

He gestured for her to drink the water as he started pulling out all their gathered supplies to take inventory, all the while tending the fire. He was still shivering, so hard at times it wracked his body, and Shuri longed to offer his sweatshirt back but knew he would refuse. She started examining her beloved beads. Some of them were unfamiliar to her; those that Malice had placed on her, to keep her prisoner, to force her compliance. Her hands clenched against the idea of her using something so beautiful and comforting and familiar as a tool against her. Bitter anger rose up within her, and she felt a vindictive stab of hatred toward the woman.

"I hope we kill her, Mr. Stark," she said, bitterness bleeding into her words. He looked up at her, a small flicker of surprise and then concern crossing his face.

"People like Malice are usually well connected. Taking her alive might lead us to more people who are enemies to Wakanda, mercenaries and murderers who would otherwise continue in their anonymity," he said. "But... I know how you feel."

She thought about his words as she worked for a few minutes. She knew she had a rare privilege talking to Tony Stark about all this; he famously would never grant interviews, only ever releasing statements to the press and occasional press conferences, but he rarely talked about the Avengers or the missions they went on. "It must be exciting. is it? To always be saving the world."

Tony stopped working and sighed. He looked tired; almost as tired as she had seen him early on in their captivity, when Malice had tormented him with sleep deprivation. She thought that the tired he was feeling now was, perhaps, of the soul, not the body.

"Everyone thinks that. That it's exciting. You might not understand this, Shuri, but let me tell you something. Facing enemies like Malice and Loki and Ultron, it's not interesting. All those evil plans, they bore me half to death. It's not as exciting as you'd think. It's a dull, monotonous, irritating wash-rinse-repeat of pain and suffering. It's insipid, take my word for it. Discovery, now that's interesting. Making a scientific breakthrough, understanding something that's never been understood before, now that's exciting. Kindness is interesting; it's never the same kindness twice. Compassion-- seeing people who don't have anything to do with each other coming together to mitigate the pain and suffering around them, now that's exciting to me. Making amends. Making dinner." He blew out a soft chuckle as he exhaled.

"Maybe I'm not the one to ask about it. Others seemed plenty happy to be fighting all the time. Thrived on it. Time I did too, I guess. Maybe I'm a bit like Yinsen, in my old age, and becoming a passivist." He smiled wryly at the thought. The idea of Merchant of Death, Tony Stark, a passivist seemed to amuse him.

"Who is Yinsen?" She asked, focusing on the beads, using the small tools from the lab they had managed to grab to modify them to transpond a signal. It was giving her trouble, given how small they were; a feat of no small difficulty with the tools she had available. Tony trusted her to do it, though, and she was determined.

"Someone who helped me once, when I was being held captive and being forced to make a weapon."

"Then you're my Yinsen!" She exclaimed.

"I wouldn't say we compare," he said softly, a lump in his throat at the memories. "He was a better man than me. He gave his life trying to save mine, and asked me not to waste it."

She looked at him soberly, sensing the pain he held for such an old wound. "You've done justice to his request, Mr. Stark," she said quietly, with conviction. "I hope I can do justice to you for saving my life."

"We aren't out of it yet," he deflected, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand.

"I am afraid of Malice," she confessed. "We're not strong."

"No. We're not. But you have knowledge and I have skills, and between us we have--" he paused.

"The new arc reactor." The thing that best represented their shared work and genius.

"Yeah," he acknowledged. "That. But I also thought of another thing between us. Trust, maybe. Believing in each other. Though each of us alone is weak, having that we are stronger." A pained and worried look crossed his face. He looked at her, sad, sad beyond description. She didn't know what to say or do in the face of such pain, she had never felt her youthfulness and lack of experience so acutely. From what she knew of his past, she knew what he had shared with her was a deeply held personal belief, and yet everything he'd been through, his experiences, had taught him that teamwork and trust were nothing but tools to be used against him. The fact that it was still his impulse to trust and bolster others as part of a team effort touched her heart and she reached out and put her small hand over his.

"I do trust you, Mr. Stark."

He gave her a soft, brief, broken smile before getting back to work on weapons and defense. She focused once again on her task of sending a signal, but she couldn't help but continue to think of what he'd told her. She thought about the trust he'd put in the Avengers, and how they'd saved the world together more than once. Yet even with all that, they were still broken and scattered. There must have been times that they were more than a team, they were family; times when their relationships were immutable. She knew he must be devastated over it, but she still had a question.

"Do you regret it, Mr. Stark? Joining the Avengers? Giving them your trust?"

Tony shook his head slowly, uncertain. "I regret a lot of things," he replied, tightening the screw on something, his hair falling into his eyes a bit. He looked sad. He set his tools down a moment and caught her eye.

"I can't tell you. I don't know if I'd do anything different, kid. If I had a time machine and went back to do it all over, knowing what I do, who's to say? But that's pointless, it's a waste. I've spent a lot of time thinking about my past, redoing it, undoing it and remembering and sometimes rewriting it. I've been called a Futurist, and worse, but I don't know. It seems like I can never get away from what's behind me. It's different for you. You're living your past and building a long future ahead of you. You can't look at what happened to me and try to make comparisons. Someone once said fear is seldom wise and never kind, and that's true. You can't be afraid because of things that happened to me, things that are happening to you, to your brother. Don't take counsel from despair, kid."

"You think I should be trusting?" She asked, thinking of her safe Wakandan home open now to outsiders.

"I think you're young, Shuri, and have plenty of time, plenty of love to place foolishly and indiscriminately. It's not like that for me anymore. What I love is more or less a settled thing."

"What do you love, Mr. Stark?"

"Mostly helpless, hopeless things that need it the most and deserve it the least," he sighed. "And Pepper."

The sun was finally rising enough to warm the air, and the chill that had settled over them began to dissipate. Tony put out the fire, not wanting the smell or smoke to alert Malice to where they were.

Shuri finished tapped the display a few more times. "Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark! I think I've done it! I sent a signal!"

"You did?" He came quickly over to her. "How?"

She explained quickly. "I hijacked the tracker here and rerouted it through these--" she showed him the code. "Essentially--"

"Scattering it. So her receiver would have nothing but white noise."

"Yes! But then here I used the EPS manifold to reconfigure the data."

"And accounted for the wave pattern by decompressing the oscillator?"

"Of course!"

He leaned back, grinning. "That will work. FRIDAY will pick it up, I'm sure of it. It might take her some time though."

"I know. Embedded as it is, I'm hoping a good guy will find it before a bad guy. That's all we can do."

"There's one more thing. We get ready to defend ourselves. I'm sure Malice will find us before anyone else. Come here, princess, and let me show you how to use this."